If President Biden can withstand the establishment onslaught and Washington resistance to his plans, he can deliver a populist blow to neoliberalism coming from the most unlikely of actors.
Joe Biden is the exact opposite of who you’d think would start a Presidency ushering in the end of neoliberalism, but here we are. Certainly, President Biden is nothing more than a hostage to the forces around him, less a catalyst and much more a by-product, but his economic plans, however inadequate, deliver a concrete blow to neoliberalism and may break for good the Reaganite consensus that’s held steady in Washington since the 1980s; for that reason, we need to see to it that these incoming infrastructure and social packages pass.
How has this even come onto the agenda when Biden has been a puppet to the establishment line for the entirety of his political career? Simple, elite opinion has shifted in a “big spending” direction, and this has given the new President breathing room to transform into a classic “big spending liberal”, a vastly superior (yet deeply flawed) alternative to a fiscal conservative, and an amalgamation we haven’t seen since the pre-Clinton years (and properly since pre Jimmy Carter); that’s a big shift, considering Biden himself was one of the Democrats who worked to shatter the New Deal consensus, and bring in an age of deranged neoliberal economic and social dogma, with all the suffering that entailed; even fighting at one point for a balanced budget amendment, a proposal so horrendous it doesn’t bare thinking about.
Biden’s big test is if he can withstand the opposition to the populist measures contained within his plans. Republican obstructionism may not present as big a threat as you’d think for this first infrastructure package, since budget reconciliation can pass the thing and Biden has shown more understanding of the GOP’s game of hardball than may of us would have given him credit for when he spouted delusional takes about unity during and after the campaign.
So if the issue isn’t per-say an oppositional GOP, and we assume they can be worked around much like was done with the American Rescue Plan, what’s the issue facing Biden?
The issue is twofold, and the reason I’m deeply sceptical is that Biden’s whole career is a record of folding and capitulating to pressure, pressure from donors, big business, the GOP, and literally anyone else BUT working class Americans. In other words, Joe Biden is a friend and tool of the establishment, who’s towed the line for four decades, and that’s why he got so much more big money flushed into his campaign than Trump. Biden’s campaign was bankrolled by American elites in a quite overt way, and his history shows he returns the favour to these people once in office.
The first issue is Democratic opposition to components of the plans from the conservative elements of the Democratic party. That’s right, there are people to the right of Biden in the party telling him he’s gone too far left (Democratic politics really is an enormous cesspit)! Because of the knife edge in the Senate and perilously shrunk majority in the House, these voices have disproportionate influence and they want the populist bite taken out of these plans, supposedly to sell to their constituents, but a look at polling shows this isn’t the case, and it’s much more likely to please their campaign bankrollers, considering the “tax the rich and corporations” aspects of the Biden plans garner mass popular support with literally ever subset of voter. In order to combat this the left flank of the Democrats needs to grow a pair, and leverage their votes in order to keep these measures into the plans, plain and simple; if the right plays these games, the left needs to get on the field.
The second issue, perhaps a darker one, is the opposition within the corporate world. They’re now fine with big stimulus and massive infrastructure spending, but they want it entirely financed by borrowing, with no hits to their hoarded wealth or profits. In short, the financial vandals don’t want their vandalism inspected, regulated, shrunk, or curbed. There is a lot of talk of “quietly killing” various measures, much as was done with the $15 minimum wage, even though it had a FIVE YEAR phase in! When it comes to budget reconciliation, we’ve see that the Biden administration won’t put up a fight for these measures, and is happy to cave to elite pressure on how to fund these things and pass them that way, than push to keep the populist measures in the plan. Once again, the progressives have to find their voice and embarrass Democrats publicly into standing up to big business.
This capitulation was extremely damaging with the minimum wage hike, a massively popular measure, something Republicans would never do (a clear dividing line), something long overdue, and probably its only chance to pass in that plan. It was terrible optics, but so much more importantly, terrible for working people and a wholesale betrayal of a core campaign pledge, and one Biden had already discounted privately, as he went out and professed his support and feigned his hands being tied by congress.
There’s a cold political calculation for Democrats when it comes to raising corporation tax and taking the top income brackets to pay for these big spending plans. Sure, you could finance by borrowing, but if you do, it actually looses a lot of its political bite, and doesn’t sound as exciting, as evidenced by a poll showing 44% support for the infrastructure plan as an abstract. But when you put in the populist method of financing the thing, telling voters that it will be financed by raising tax on corporations, it gets 53% popular support. That’s 9% increase in popular support, and that 9% is the difference between who holds the balance of power in elections!
In short, if Biden wants to keep his party in power he needs to go big, loud, and populist about his taxation pledges, and get voters to associate his plans with those taxation measures if he wants mass popular support for them. For such a capitalistic society, the American public love any policy that hits the big guys or the well off, and it’s something Biden seems to be willing to tap into, and will reap dividends for him and his party if he does. However, if this is betrayed, it’s going to be Obama 2.0, and an insurgent GOP off the back of Democratic betrayal, with voters much less likely to give the Democrats another chance in the future, emboldening the far right. It’s make or break, and the centre cannot hold; Biden must be populist and hold his nerve, or loose office and doom his party.