[Publisher’s Note ]New Deal 2.0? | Harper's Magazine

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“Apparently, the assassin who killed Bernie Sanders’ presidential aspirations and his popular appeal for Medicare for All is now donning the clothing of a New Deal social democrat.”

The United States officially calls itself a nation under God, which is why I wasn’t surprised when the media announced the Second Coming. Except they weren’t talking about Jesus Christ but about the country’s 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, founder of the American welfare state, whom they believe is reincarnated in the form of our current president, Joe Biden.

Excuse me? Apparently, the assassin who killed Bernie Sanders’ presidential aspirations and his popular appeal for Medicare for All is now donning the clothing of a New Deal social democrat. Biden—once a supporter of Wall Street deregulation, a friend to credit-card companies, and a champion of free trade—is now appearing under the guise of a progressive like Elizabeth Warren, who has defended the economically vulnerable, declared war on the banks, and opposed concentrating wealth in 1 percent of the population. Biden—an extremely prudent politician who is courteous with colleagues—has somehow morphed not only into FDR, the father of the New Deal, but also into Lyndon Johnson, a president famous for his aggression, even brutality, when it came to “persuading” recalcitrant opponents to his point of view.

In April, the French daily newspaper Le Monde summed up what many pro-Biden commentators have said: “By presenting himself as a pragmatist concerned with concrete results, Joe Biden aims to become nothing short of a transformational president of the likes of Lyndon Baines Jonson or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, even though he hasn’t made this intention official, like his illustrious predecessors did.” Simon Kuper of the Financial Times left no room for irony when he wrote of the current president’s “newfound radicalism.”

As we speak, “Uncle Joe” is enjoying the general confusion created by his two enormous relief packages—the first already in place and the other slated for future public works—in which everyone sees what he or she wants to see. I do my part to try to examine the “concrete” facts rather than the illusions created by PR firms and journalists, but the members of the media remain so traumatized by Donald Trump’s presidency that they seem to have lost the ability to analyze even the most mundane events.

My starting point is a healthy skepticism of Biden’s “progressive” tendencies. His track record as a “new democrat” or neoliberal over the past four decades goes a long way in explaining his real character. Sure, the president wants to spend a whole lot of cash, just as his predecessor did. But at $1.9 trillion, the American Rescue Plan (ARP) that Biden enacted in March is only a little less expensive than the first COVID-19 rescue plan launched by President Trump in March 2020, though it was more generous in its direct payments to individuals—$1,400 versus $1,200. Trump’s and Biden’s respective projects are similar in scope, yet New York Times columnist Paul Krugman practically prostrated himself before Biden’s plan. He called it “breathtaking,” in part because of the one-year expansion of the child tax credit (CTC), which allows low-income families to receive direct government subsidies without having to prove need. A direct-benefit system for underprivileged mothers provided just enough to support a family of three until Bill Clinton and his allies, who included then-Senator Joe Biden, dismantled it in the 1990s. According to Krugman, the increased CTC benefit included in Biden’s plan amounts to less money—$6,000 to $7,200 for families with two parents earning less than $75,000 per year, compared with $15,000 in the pre-Clinton direct benefit system—but it’s unconditional.

Can Biden’s reforms be classified as radical in comparison with the establishment of Social Security (1935) and Medicare (1965)? Obviously not, since Biden’s rescue plan barely tackles the plight of the most disadvantaged of the nation’s 34 million people classified as below the official poverty level. Not to mention that Biden recently announced that the CTC increase would probably be temporary. In fact, the gross inequalities—the federal minimum wage remains at a ridiculously low $7.25 an hour—seem to be here to stay. And that’s exactly where Biden’s true colors are revealed.

With a tenuous majority in the Senate (Vice President Kamala Harris casts the deciding vote for the Democrats), Biden was forced to push his relief plan through Republican roadblocks using a process called reconciliation; otherwise he would have needed 60 votes to end an opposition filibuster. Film buffs who have seen James Stewart in Mr. Smith goes to Washington know that a filibuster can serve noble purposes.  Historically, though, it is an outmoded tactic used to hinder reform.

When it was first proposed, Biden’s American Rescue Plan contained a gradual increase of the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, a key issue for real progressives in Congress. But the Senate parliamentarian ruled that this increase couldn’t be part of a reconciliation. Biden and his advisers gave in, and the increase was removed from the act, over the objections of Senator Sanders. But the compromise must have been a big relief for Biden, who didn’t want to antagonize two conservative Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who preferred an increase to $11. LBJ likely would have had the Senate parliamentarian fired or threatened to punish Manchin and Sinema by putting them on shit committees and blocking their pet projects.

The fact of the matter is that a family of four cannot live on $7.25 an hour, even with two parents working full time. It also cannot live on $11 an hour and can just barely survive on $15 an hour. Calling Joe Biden a radical is nonsense.

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