The third time would not be a charm.
People on the left did very little to challenge Bill Clinton after he won the presidency in 1992. Two years later, a big Republican wave took control of Congress.
People on the left did very little to challenge Barack Obama after he won the presidency in 2008. Two years later, a big Republican wave took control of Congress.
Now, we’re being told that people on the left should pipe down and do little to challenge Joe Biden. But silence or merely faint dissent would enable the third Democratic president in four decades to again sacrifice progressive possibilities on the altar of corporate power.
Clinton and Obama — no less than Biden in recent months — could sound like a semi-populist at times on the campaign trail. But during 16 years combined in the White House, they shared a governing allegiance to neoliberalism: aiding and abetting privatization, austerity budgets for the public sector, bloated budgets for the Pentagon, deregulation of corporate behavior, and so-called “free trade” agreements boosting big-business profit margins at the expense of workers, consumers and the environment.
The idea that corporate centrism is the best way for Democrats to defeat Republicans is belied by actual history. Yes, Clinton and Obama won re-election — but their political narcissism and fidelity to big corporations proved devastating to the Democratic Party and very helpful to the GOP.
During Obama’s eight years as president, Democrats lost not only both houses of Congress but also more than 1,000 seats in state legislatures. As the New York Times noted, “In 2009, Democrats controlled both the state senate and house in 27 states, the Republicans 14. After the 2016 elections, Republicans controlled both branches of the legislatures in 32 states to 14 for the Democrats.” Republicans also gained more governors.
It’s worth pondering Obama’s blunt assessment of his administration’s first term: “My policies are so mainstream that if I had set the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican.”
Yet the Obama era is now being fondly and routinely hailed as a kind of aspirational benchmark. We’re now being told to yearn to go back to the future under the leadership of the soon-to-be president who boasted last year: “I’m an Obama-Biden Democrat, man, and I’m proud of it.”
On the verge of 2021, populist anger and despair are unabated. And, as economic disasters worsen at macro and individual levels, more widespread populist rage is predictable. Only progressive populism offers an appealing alternative to the toxic pseudo-populism of the Trumpist Republican Party.
Pushing the Biden presidency in the direction of progressive populism is not only the morally correct thing to do, given the scale of human suffering and the existential threats posed by economic unraveling, the climate emergency and militarism. Progressive populism can also be the political antidote to the poisonous right-wing manipulation of genuine economic and social distress. In sharp contrast, “moderate” programs have little to offer.
My colleague Jeff Cohen describes the “No Honeymoon” campaign we’re immersed in at RootsAction.org as “an effort to help save Biden from himself and from following in the footsteps — missteps, really — of his predecessors Obama and Clinton. Too much hesitation, vacillation, corporatism in the first two years will likely bring on a Republican landslide for Congress in 2022, as Clinton’s vacillation and corporatism, like NAFTA, did in 1994, and Obama’s in 2010, for example his bailing out Wall Street but not homeowners through a foreclosure freeze.”
To avert a big Republican win in two years, Cohen says, “Biden has to deliver for poor, working-class and middle-class people. Policies that make a big difference in people’s lives — including cancellation of federal student debt and pushing for a $15 federal minimum wage. That will mean listening more to progressive allies, progressive economists and legal experts — and less to the Democratic corporate donor class. If he doesn’t deliver, Biden plays into the hands of the GOP faux-populists, setting us all up for defeat in 2022.”
In the #NoHoneymoon launch video, released last week, former Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign national co-chair Nina Turner — now running for Congress in a special election — explained the concept of No Honeymoon. “We mean that we the people hold the power,” she said. “That we must continue to fight for what is just, right and good, and fight against what is not just, right and good. We mean that we must have solidarity and commitment, one to another.”
She added: “As long as there are injustices, we will continue to fight. What do we mean by that? We know that when everyday people put a little extra on the ordinary, extraordinary things happen. . . . We mean that we will not be seduced by smiles — we need action, and we need it right now. We will not relent. And that’s what we mean when we say ‘No Honeymoon.’”
Over the weekend, under the headline “Biden Cabinet Leans Centrist, Leaving Some Liberals Frustrated,” the New York Times declared with typical media framing that “the president-elect’s personnel choices are more pragmatic and familiar than ideological” — as though centrism itself is not “ideological.” The newspaper reported that “there is no one yet in Mr. Biden’s cabinet carrying the torch for the policies that he campaigned against during the primaries: free college for everyone, a costly Green New Deal, an anti-Wall Street agenda, universal health care and steep increases in the minimum wage.”
Silence or grumbling acquiescence as the Biden presidency takes shape would amount to a political repetition disorder of the sort that ushered in disastrous political results under the Clinton and Obama administrations. Progressives must now take responsibility and take action. As Nina Turner says, “everything we love is on the line.”