By Rebecca Green, Socialist Alternative (our sister organisation in the United States)
This isn’t the first time that Joe Biden has entered the White House during an economic catastrophe. It’s not his first time being sworn in while millions of Americans faced unemployment, eviction, foreclosure, and hunger. But this time is worse. On top of the economic crisis is a terribly mishandled pandemic caused by environmental degradation that threatens our way of life. Biden’s first 100 days will be high stakes.
This time, his tune is sounding a little different though. Biden says his number one priority is a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, which makes the 2009 Obama-Biden $800 billion Wall Street bailout look small in comparison. The stimulus plan carves out substantial sums of money to contain and vaccinate against COVID, reopen schools, and provides direct aid to the unemployed, families, and small businesses. The plan even includes raising the federal minimum wage to $15.
Biden says that more relief will come after that. His “Build Back Better” recovery plan promises a mass infrastructure jobs program focused on sustainability and funded by taxing the rich. On his first days in the Oval Office, he already passed a flurry of executive orders, undoing a number of Trump’s most egregiously reactionary measures.
- rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and World Health Organization;
- extending the pause on federal student loan payments through September;
- extending the ban on evictions and foreclosures through March;
- reversing Trump’s Muslim ban;
- cancelling the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline;
- reversing Trump’s family separation policy and restrictions on asylum seekers;
- strengthening the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for young immigrants;
- and restoring Obama-era guidance for transgender students in schools.
He is also planning to submit a bill to Congress which would provide a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.
On the campaign trail in the spring, Biden relentlessly attacked Bernie Sanders with a “how will you pay for that?” If he’d talked about any of this stimulus proposal during the fall election he probably would have beat Trump even more decisively.
So why are his promises so big all of a sudden? How much will he actually deliver on? And what will actually be necessary to get out of this crisis and make sure we never return to the “normal” that got us here in the first place?
What’s Behind Biden’s Promises?
2021 is not 2009. Unemployment in the U.S. rose higher in the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic than in two years of the Great Recession. And while experts applaud a recovery since the peak of unemployment in April, one recent study showed that a staggering 26.8 million are now unemployed, underemployed or have given up looking for work, far more than official figures indicate.
Since the Great Recession, average household debt has increased, homeownership rates have decreased, and average family wealth has decreased significantly. None of the underlying issues were solved which led to the current economic crisis triggered by COVID-19. Twelve million renters now owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities. Fifty million people (and seventeen million children) face hunger. At the time of writing, over 414,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and 24.9 million have gotten sick.
In June, 40% of respondents to a CDC survey reported a mental illness, and a recent report revealed a 24% and 31% increase in mental health related ER visits since the beginning of the pandemic for children aged 5-11 and 12-17 years-old respectively.
The Chamber of Commerce, figures like the Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren, and many economists now support large elements of Biden’s plan. There is a consensus in key sections of the ruling class that stimulus was insufficient in 2009. Even the 2020 stimulus passed by Congress, which overwhelmingly went to big business, was on a far bigger scale to 2009. But it is recognized that the $1,200 stimulus checks and $600 unemployment top up played a key role in preventing an even more devastating economic collapse last spring. While Biden won’t say so, his stimulus proposal is an admission that the old neoliberal playbook isn’t going to get us out of this mess.
There is also an important push from the left. U.S. capitalism was rocked this past year by the uprising following the murder of George Floyd. His death sparked the biggest protest movement in U.S. history, drawing some involvement from the labor movement and taking up the demand to defund the police. This explosive movement sent fear down the spines of the rich and powerful, including Democratic politicians overseeing racist, militarized police departments across the country. The violent repression of peaceful demonstrations opened many people’s eyes to the real allegiances of the police and the state.
The ruling class and the political establishment know that there is massive combustible material in U.S. society with young people especially no longer willing to put up with the same old crap. As part of regaining control they need to be seen to be doing something.
But will he keep good on his promises?
Well it depends on which ones. Biden has already crossed some things off his list, including undoing a handful of Trump’s attacks on immigrants and transgender people, but frankly challenging the oppression of LGBTQ+ people and fixing our broken immigration system will take far more than undoing Trump’s damage. The urgent need to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, develop a testing and vaccination plan – which were nonexistent under Trump – mean the $400 billion in the proposed stimulus bill designated for this is likely to be implemented. The promise of $2,000 checks made during the Georgia Senate run-off will make it hard to back away from the $1,400 per person in his stimulus plan. But a $15 minimum wage? A jobs program paid for by taxing the rich? These will meet far more resistance from the Republicans and a certain section of Democratic lawmakers.
And at the end of the day, Joe Biden is a corporate Democrat who has spent his career attacking Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, allying himself with the banking and credit card industries, supporting imperialist wars, and supporting policies that have decimated communities of color, attacked women, LGBTQ+ people, the working class and poor. The aid he is promising to working people is big, but his real allegiances are still solidly with corporate interests, which he will refuse to break with when it comes to more substantial structural change.
The Democratic Party is the same. They have a long history of making nice sounding promises to working people right before selling us out to big business. In March, they joined with Trump and the Republicans to pass the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, which – while topping up unemployment benefits by $600 a week and providing $1,200 checks – was mostly a big business bailout. Money meant for small businesses in the Paycheck Protection Program largely went to multi-million dollar chains like Shake Shack. More than half of the money went to corporations, many of which laid off workers while claiming $651 billion in tax breaks. About 20% of the money went to workers and families, and less than 20% to combatting the pandemic.
Democrats in Congress reassured us that more robust aid was to come and blamed Republicans for failing to take up the HEROES Act in the Senate, but then backed off all their “red line” issues and accepted a profoundly inadequate $900 billion stimulus in December.
Now that Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress, there is no Republican boogeyman to blame. Already it has become clear that Republicans oppose Biden’s plan, and the Democrats won’t likely be able to win over the ten Republicans needed in the Senate to pass the bill as is (spending bills require 60 votes due to undemocratic filibuster rules, which the Democrats should abolish).
However, Democrats could use a process called budget reconciliation, which allows them to pass the bill, as is, with a simple majority in the House and Senate. This tactic has been widely used by Republicans in the past. Ronald Reagan used the process seven times during his presidency to cut taxes for the rich and funding for welfare programs and food stamps. Most recently, Trump used the process to successfully pass his 2017 tax cuts for his billionaire pals.
So it comes down to this: do Democrats bargain away $15, whittle down state funding and unemployment top ups in the name of the “bipartisanship” that the country so “desperately needs” as Biden has said? Bipartisanship with a party that includes over a hundred members of Congress who refused to certify the results of the election, even after the right-wing attack on the Capitol? Who relentlessly use every legislative means possible to attack unions, women, LGBTQ+ people, Black people, and immigrants? Or are the Democrats united enough to get the bill through by abolishing the filibuster, using budget reconciliation, and standing up to the hesitant, conservative sections of their party? Negotiations have begun, and already Democratic Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia has said the bill is too big. Given the Democrats track record of bending the knee to billionaires and the right, we’re skeptical Biden’s full plan will pass without mass pressure from below.
Do Biden’s promises go far enough?
Even if the full $1.9 trillion going to COVID relief, state and local governments, as well as stimulus checks and unemployment passes, this can only temporarily stave off an even deeper crisis.
But ordinary people want to know: if trillions can be spent to prevent collapse on Wall Street and in the financial markets, why can’t we start addressing the disastrous inequality, broken public healthcare system, and underfunded education that have been exposed and exacerbated by this crisis? Billionaires made over $1 trillion in 2020 while tens of millions went further in debt and struggled to pay rent and put food on the table.
As one example, renters owe an estimated $70 billion in back rent and utilities, far more than the $25 billion being promised in the stimulus plan for rental assistance. One-in-four renters spend half of their wages on rent, and millions of renters were evicted every year before the pandemic. A short-term payment of $25 billion in rental assistance promised in Biden’s plan is not going to be enough. We need a cancellation of rental debt accrued under the pandemic, universal rent control, and a massive investment in the construction of green, affordable housing.
Another example: an estimated 36,000 public schools (a little over one-third of the total) need upgrades to their ventilation systems, which is critical for a safe reopening to prevent the spread of COVID. In many cases these are not just simple upgrades but, because of decades of underfunding, will require complete HVAC system replacements. Even putting COVID upgrades aside, it’s estimated that California alone needs to spend another $25.6 billion a year to adequately fund its public schools. So while $170 billion to make a safe reopening possible would be very welcome, it wouldn’t begin to address the drastic underfunding of public education.
And what about healthcare? Propping up our healthcare system just enough to vaccinate the majority of the population against this one particular virus should only be the beginning. Scientists are already finding that many people, even healthy, young people with mild COVID cases, are experiencing long-term health impacts like damage to the heart, scar tissue in the lungs, strokes, seizures, and even have a higher risk of developing Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
So yes let’s get vaccinated, but we can’t go back to a for-profit healthcare system after that. In 2019, 26.1 million people did not have health insurance at any point during the year. Millions more lost employer-based health insurance in 2020. An estimated 18.2 million people with conditions that significantly increase mortality from COVID (like asthma, heart disease and diabetes) do not have health insurance, and this includes disproportionate numbers of Black, Native American, and low-paid workers.
Short staffing, hospital closures, and profit-driven management have all threatened the lives of healthcare workers and killed countless COVID patients who deserved care that a for-profit system wouldn’t give them. Many of those who lived will be haunted by chronic health conditions and medical debt. 41% of U.S. adults delayed or avoided other medical care (12% for emergency care and 32% for routine care) because of COVID-19, which has and will continue to increase mortality from other chronic and acute health conditions. Add to that the mental health epidemic, where for example more high school students have died from suicide and overdose than deaths by COVID-19, and it is clear that even if we reach herd immunity, Americans are coming out of the pandemic with a massive ongoing mental and physical health crisis.
According to election exit polls in November, 72% of people said they wanted government run healthcare. So no, Joe, money for COVID relief is not enough – we need an immediate transition to a Medicare for All system, a mass investment of funds to reopen closed hospitals and community healthcare centers, robust investment in mental health services, a mass, permanent hiring of healthcare workers with full union rights and living wages, and democratic public ownership over the pharmaceutical industry.
Biden’s climate plan is a death sentence
This is not the only pandemic we will see in our life times. There are an estimated 1.7 million undiscovered viruses in mammals and birds, about half of which could infect humans. Future pandemics will happen more often, spread faster, and kill more people.
The exploitation of the planet is what gave us COVID: deforestation and the disruption of wild habitats (always in the name of profit) increases contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people.
Biden has said we need a “wartime” footing to battle COVID – but why not to battle the environmental crisis that brought us the deadly virus in the first place? The Paris Climate Agreement, which Biden rejoined on his first day in office, is non binding, few countries have adhered to their promises, and even if every country met theirs it wouldn’t keep us under two degrees Celsius warming. Yes it’s positive that Biden cancelled the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, but what about the Dakota Access Pipeline? What about all the other pipelines that are up and running and the ones that are to come?
Symbolic promises and climate conferences with world leaders is not enough. We need democratic public ownership of all the fossil fuel companies and utilities; to transition them immediately to green energy with the goal of reaching 100% renewable energy in years not decades; democratic public ownership of Amtrak and a mass expansion of fully electric high-speed rail across the country; a mass Green New Deal jobs program that can put tens of millions of people back to work retrofitting and weatherizing buildings, reforesting the country, expanding and operating public transit systems, restructuring our agriculture system, and so much more. Falling far short of what’s needed, Biden’s plan is a death sentence.
Biden will stand in the way of what we really need
There is no return to pre-Trump, pre-COVID normal, but that’s where Biden wants to take us. If there has ever been a time to fight for seismic change, it is now. But that change will not happen if we sit back and wait for Biden to deliver it. We need real leadership, and figures like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, and all the other members of the Squad will need to be unwavering in their commitment to fight for what is needed, refusing to settle for what Biden and the Democratic establishment say is acceptable, and refusing to let them whittle away their promises in the name of bipartisanship. This will mean turning away from legislative maneuvering and instead bringing direct opposition to weak compromises into the streets, to their supporters, and to the movements that got them there in the first place.
What won the first $15 minimum wage in cities across the country, rent control in NYC, police accountability measures and the defunding of some police departments across the country were social movements. What won better wages for teachers and funding for schools, ended Trump’s government shutdown, secured appropriate PPE for healthcare workers fighting COVID was workers getting organized and getting ready to strike. What will win Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, a cancellation of rental and student debt, and a Green New Deal will be healthcare workers, low wage workers, students, renters, oil rig workers, bus drivers, and anyone who has a stake in an economy based on human need, not profit, jumping into the fight.
The battle for a better world has never played out in the Oval Office, it has always taken place in community center basements, union halls, campus centers, break rooms, and on the streets. It’s time to get organized like our lives depend on it, because they do.