To fix the US, President Biden must listen to those who put him in power
An unprecedented grassroots mobilisation removed Donald Trump from the White House. The incoming president would be unwise to ignore its demands.
“The biggest problems are the Democratic and Republican parties. Both of them.”
On the eve of the US election in November, I spoke to JD, a former marine, in a dive bar on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio. He was confident of a Trump victory.
“There are a lot of Democrats I know going Republican. But in reality they’re not going Republican – they’re going Trump.”
Joe Biden ended up winning by more than seven million votes, but the results were far from the landslide victory that many were predicting.
Biden enters the Oval Office at a time of profound crisis. Ever since the storming of the Capitol on 6 January, statehouses across the country have been braced for more violence. The US is at the centre of a global pandemic; in America, more than 400,000 people have died of COVID-19 and millions more have been left unemployed. Racial tensions are at their highest point in decades, while on the international stage America’s standing has hit rock bottom.
Many view Trump as the main source of these problems. But his appeal can’t be ignored. I’ve spent the past couple of months travelling around the US, and heard people from all walks of life give countless reasons for supporting Trump.
But I’ve also met hundreds of campaigners, many of whom were non-white, young and working class, on the frontline mobilising against Trump.
Not all were Biden supporters, and many had only recently become politically active. But this unprecedented grassroots mobilisation had a decisive impact on the result. More voters turned out for Trump in 2020 than in 2016. Were it not for the historic turnout for Biden, Trump would have won the most votes ever by a presidential candidate.
If Biden wants to maintain this level of popular support, he would be unwise to ignore the demands of the campaigners, activists and canvassers who helped to put him in power. Here’s where those I spoke to say he should begin.
Put money in peoples' pockets
“One of the biggest issues that we have in this country is that people don't believe in the government, because they don't do anything.”
Outside a Holiday Inn in Gwinnett County, a largely Democratic area right near Atlanta, I met Connor Buckley, a 21-year-old New Yorker who travelled to Georgia ahead of the Senate run-offs. Buckley was there to campaign for Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock.
Several days later both candidates won their races and delivered Democrats control of the Senate.
“This will be the ultimate test of their [the Democrats] ability to actually promote change,” said Buckley, who was sceptical over whether Biden would pass any substantive policy even with his party controlling both legislatures.
“Even though the Republicans probably do tangibly worse things, they still do things.”
With more than ten million people unemployed amid one of the worst COVID outbreaks in the world – many are struggling to survive. Millions of Americans are behind on rent and can’t afford to put food on the table.
Ossoff and Warnock – now newly elected Senators – directly spoke to many of these concerns in their campaigns by promising to deliver $2,000 stimulus checks to every household. Biden also supported this pledge in the lead up to the run-offs.
Yet last week, when Biden announced his first major piece of legislation, a $1.9trn ‘American Rescue Plan’, it included another round of $1,400 stimulus checks.
This has already faced pushback from progressive members of his caucus. "$2,000 means $2,000”, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told The Washington Post shortly after the relief package was announced. “$2,000 does not mean $1,400.”
Biden’s team argues that the payments top up the second round of $600 checks, which were guaranteed at the end of 2020, bringing the total to $2,000. But the reaction to the apparent backsliding of his campaign promise highlights a broader lack of trust with the political establishment.
“Biden, we know what he’s about”, Anthony, a cell phone worker and former Obama supporter who voted for Trump, told me in Washington, Pennsylvania. “He said he’s going to do a lot of things, but he’s been in office for 43 years, and he hasn’t done them.”
Biden’s American Rescue Plan also includes a raft of popular policies: expanding enhanced weekly unemployment insurance from to $400 until November, 14 weeks of paid family and sick leave, and raising the federal minimum wage to $15.
Spend big on climate
Ahead of Georgia’s Senate run-off elections, many young activists from across the US travelled to the state to campaign for the Democrats, who they hope will finally pass substantive climate legislation.
“As a Californian, I’m really worried about climate change,” said Melody, an 18-year-old student from the Bay Area, near San Francisco, who I met in Gwinnett County. “A lot of my friends were staying with me during the pandemic because their houses were at risk of burning down.”
Recent years have seen a tide of environmental youth activism, spearheaded by groups such as the Sunrise Movement, demanding that the Democratic Party pass a Green New Deal.
“Most of the Democrats.. [even] those who have spent their careers as centrists, embraced if not the Green New Deal, then something much bolder than we would have seen in 2016”, explained Kate Aronoff, a climate journalist for the New Republic in our recent podcast.
“Which is to credit how dramatically social movements have shifted that conversation in the last several years.”
Following a joint-policy taskforce with Senator Bernie Sanders' representatives, Biden endorsed a faster transition timeline: net zero emissions by 2050, eliminating carbon from the power sector by 2035 and publicly investing $2trn into clean energy infrastructure over the next decade.
Biden’s cabinet appointments suggest that his administration is responding to grassroots pressure from below. Following a campaign from progressive activists, New Mexico Representative Deb Haaland, who was an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal and will be the first Native American to hold a cabinet position, has been tapped to lead the Department of the Interior.
Biden has also pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement and rescind the Keystone XL pipeline permit on day one of his presidency, which have been long-standing demands of activists.
However, many remain sceptical that bold climate legislation will be able to pass through a narrow Senate majority as long as more conservative and fossil fuel-linked Democrats, such as West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, remain in power.
“I think his [Biden’s] policy platform is decent. It’s not enough, but it’s better than what we’ve had in the past,” said Tomaso, another canvasser from California I met in Savannah, Georgia, ahead of the Senate run-off elections.
“With only 50 votes, and [Joe Manchin] representing West Virginia, we're not likely to get anything through the Senate that will actually improve people's lives and air quality and stop this inter-generational genocide,” Tomaso explained.
As well as the environment, universal healthcare remains firmly on the agenda.
More than half of all voters support universal healthcare in the US, which has become even more popular since 15 million Americans lost their employer-based health insurance over the course of the pandemic.
Biden’s healthcare plan includes building on Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and passing a so-called ‘public option’, which would establish a federally administered health insurance plan available for purchase. His campaign states that this would extend healthcare coverage to 97% of Americans. But Biden has been a vocal opponent of Medicare for All – a solution which has been championed by progressive Democrats.
Many activists and politicians would like to see the administration go much further. As the incoming chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Bernie Sanders is seeking to pass a temporary emergency universal healthcare program for the duration of the pandemic. If implemented, Sanders’ plan would expand free coverage to all Americans, which would likely further embolden demands for Medicare for All.
Racial justice is another key issue for many campaigners, with the Black Lives Matter movement last year amplified by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Throughout the election campaign, Biden pledged to “deal with systemic racism” and “advance racial equity across the American economy”. But many activists I met had their doubts.
"I do not like him at all, or Kamala Harris," said Milly Martin, a Black Lives Matter activist in Louisville who cited her dissatisfaction with the new vice-president's criminal justice record. Martin has been demanding justice for Breonna Taylor for nearly a year. “This election leaves us really shaken up, and really dry.”
Her sentiment was shared by many activists I met in Louisville right before the general election.
“Joe Biden wreaked havoc on Black families when he not only helped write and advocated for but also helped pass the 1994 Crime Bill”, Jecorey Arthur, the youngest member ever elected to the Louisville City Council, said on one of our podcasts.
“There are more black men today in prison in this country than there are women in prison on the entire planet. And that is in part to Joe Biden's work on that crime bill. So I will never forgive him for that.”
Arthur’s primary political demand is reparations: “[They] are the only factor when it comes to really closing the wealth gap that we have been on the bottom of since our existence here.”
Whilst neither Biden nor the party leadership have endorsed reparations, many progressive activists and newly elected members of Congress, such as former Bronx middle school principal Jamaal Bowman and St. Louis Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush, ran on a bold reparative platform.
Bowman explicitly set out a Reconstruction Agenda, which seeks to establish a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, dismantling the prison-industrial complex, defined by the Atlantic as "a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment", and investing in universal social welfare programs.
And just last week Representative Sheila Lee, joined by 173 co-sponsors, reintroduced bill H.R. 40 to the House of Representatives to establish a commission to examine the legacy of slavery and discrimination since 1619 and develop reparation proposals.
Supporting this legislation would provide an early opportunity for Biden to demonstrate a commitment to addressing the legacy of systemic racism in the US.
But for Martin, the struggle will continue no matter who is in the White House: “My generation has been waiting on this movement our whole lives. We knew it was coming. We also knew that we were going to be the ones to actually make that change that needed to be made. We are working together not only for justice for Breonna Taylor but fighting for all the injustices.”
Passing the baton to the next generation
For Biden, finally becoming president marks the culmination of a long-held dream. First elected to the Senate in 1973, the now 78-year-old must simultaneously help the country in its immediacy while trying to inspire those who dream of a brighter future.
At the centre of that future are some of the 75,000 new voters who registered ahead of the Georgia run-offs, more than half of whom were under the age of 35. This followed a national trend, with the turnout for people aged 18-29 ten points higher in the 2020 general election than in 2016.
“Here in Georgia, there have been real initiatives to have sit-down conversations with young people, which helps them understand that their voice does matter”, explained Anoa Changa, an Atlanta-based journalist who has been covering voter mobilisation efforts in the South.
“Help people understand that they are valuable, they are part of the process, that what they say and do does matter.”
The challenge now for the Biden administration is to prove to these new voters and organisers that their participation will actually lead to substantive change.
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