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Joe Biden Has to Be More Than the Man Who Defeated Trump

A Democratic president who politely listens to progressive rhetoric while failing to act on it is one who just watches the planet burn a little more slowly.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

Joe Biden has won the 2020 presidential election, but the task of moving beyond Donald Trump’s exhausting, traumatic White House tenure is just beginning. Ahead lies the hard work of governing a sprawling, polarized, damaged country that now exists in a perpetual state of emergency.

Throughout the campaign, Biden often sought to define himself less by the policies for which he stood than by the brand of leadership he’d replace in the White House. The election, he emphasized, was a referendum on “character” and “decency,” and a “battle for the soul of the nation”; his promise was to “restore” it, and return it to some semblance of normalcy. (“You won’t have to worry about my tweets when I’m president,” he promised in July.) The message was consistent: Trump was a nightmare, and Biden—a familiar politician walking a well-trodden path—was the man best equipped to wake the country up from it.

This narrative is comforting. It is also naively misguided at best, and willfully delusional at worst. America was staring down colliding crises of crushing economic inequality, disappearing jobs, unaffordable housing, skyrocketing consumer debt, racist police violence, a disintegrating social safety net, and out-of-control climate change long before Trump took office. Addressing these crises—to say nothing of the raging pandemic that Biden inherits from his predecessor, too—will be no easier or less urgent the day after he leaves it.

For millions of people, the intensity of the cryptofascist horror show that was the Trump administration infused this election with a grim, acute sense of by-any-means-necessary, particularly after Biden emerged as the Democratic nominee. But as he prepares to take office, reviving the intraparty fights of the Democratic primary might be more important than ever. Although he is of course a vast improvement over the man he’ll replace, Biden is also a lifelong moderate who is firmly entrenched within the party establishment. All available evidence from his more than four decades in elected office indicate that, as president, Joe Biden will govern from well within his centrist comfort zone, unless the Democratic Party’s ascendant left flank works to push him out of it.

Whatever you think of his voluminous, often-contradictory, sometimes-troubling record on the issues, Biden has always been a politician, not an ideologue. Supporters of agenda items like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, expanding the Supreme Court, passing a voting rights restoration act, and creating a federal jobs guarantee thus have a real opportunity ahead of them. Even if a closely-divided Senate ultimately prevents the next two years from becoming a bonanza of progressive legislation like many voters hoped, the more popular that these policies become among voters, the likelier Biden is to come around on them, too—and the likelier they are to become part of the party’s pitch in 2022 and beyond.

Biden does not, for example, support Medicare for All, as he memorably explained on the debate stage to his baffled opponent. But those who do support it can now discuss it from within the corridors of power, without immediately triggering a bad-faith smear campaign from a diametrically opposed Republican chief executive. During the Trump administration, their best-case scenario was stopping the GOP from wrecking this country’s crumbling healthcare infrastructure altogether; during the Biden administration, as journalist Zeeshan Aleem argues in The New York Times, Medicare for All proponents can finally go on offense. 

This same logic applies to climate: Biden doesn’t back the Green New Deal, but his embrace of its framework is a meaningful opportunity to push the party left. If the Biden agenda fails to make meaningful progress towards its benchmarks, it will be on him to either change course or explain why he won’t. When asked last month by CNN’s Jake Tapper about Biden’s opposition to a potential fracking ban, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez argued that younger voters in particular are less interested in electing a president who agrees with them on everything than one who is “at least going to be receptive to their advocacy, activism, and protest.” If Biden’s chosen approach proves unsatisfactory, he can likely be moved by these forces on the subject of climate change in ways that Donald Trump obviously could not.

There are encouraging signals that Biden is as willing to listen to progressives as they are ready to challenge him: He has characterized himself as a “transition candidate,” and positioned his presidency as a “bridge” to a new generation of leaders. (“They are the future of this country,” he said in March.) In the meantime, members of that next generation certainly won’t win every argument with Joe Biden, but they’ll win some of them. At the very least, that process will give them the chance to persuade voters who, thanks to the mere presence of a Democrat in the Oval Office, may learn about or seriously consider some of these ideas for the first time. “It will be a privilege to lobby him, should we win the White House,” Ocasio-Cortez told Tapper. “I’m happy to make my case.”

Making that case will be critical, because the principles that have informed Joe Biden’s long career in politics cannot be the ones that define his presidency. Even the agenda on which he ran in 2020 may prove woefully obsolete by 2021. Efforts to reinvigorate the hollowed-out Voting Rights Act are doomed from the moment of their enactment, unless lawmakers also take steps to protect new legislation from Republican justices who will almost certainly move to destroy it. Stopping evictions and foreclosures during the COVID-19 pandemic is good, but the government must also address the billions in debt that already saddles working Americans riding out a rapidly changing economy. Unless Biden pushes to abolish ICE, an agency that has spent decades terrorizing communities of color, any incremental changes he implements to this country’s cruel, broken immigration system will remain vulnerable to conservative reactionaries who vow to roll them back. A Mitch McConnell-controlled Senate that fights Biden on anything beyond renaming a post office would be frustrating, but it cannot stop him and other Democrats from telling voters why Republicans are wrong, or from making the argument for why people should vote Republicans out of office when the next opportunity arises.  

What President-elect Biden must understand is that there is no such thing as returning America to normalcy. For decades, “normal” politics have failed in myriad ways, and the status quo remains too perilous for too many people for vanquishing Trump, by itself, to be enough. As president, Joe Biden can either be the man who merely ended the Trump era, or the one who also had the courage to help launch a better one. 

Jay Willis is a senior contributor at The Appeal.