When Joe Biden was sworn in January 20, the Democrats had control of the presidency, Senate, and House of Representatives for the first time in over a decade.
If politics worked the way we learn about it in school, Biden and his party would have seized this fleeting opportunity to pass his popular agenda and cement and expand their power.
Instead, after a strong start with the American Rescue Plan, passed in March, the Democrats have puttered forward, slowly losing momentum and now appearing at a standstill. Here are all the things they could have done this year, in theory, but did not.
Come Up With a Plan, Any Plan
It’s true that Democrats hold the Senate with the slimmest margin possible, needing the votes of all 50 Democratic senators — including semi-quasi-Democrats like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin — to pass anything.
But normal people will rightfully never accept this as an excuse — if they’re even aware of it, which many likely are not. Since Biden’s inauguration, his approval rating has fallen from 57 percent to 43 percent. Even among Democrats, it’s gone down from 98 percent to 78 percent.
Democratic voters might have maintained enthusiasm if the party’s leaders had explained that they actually had a plan — one to use all the power they now have to improve people’s lives and to get more power to do more in the future. Instead, their only plan appears to be to come up with as many excuses as possible for their sluggish drift to nowhere.
This dynamic is the same as when Barack Obama took office in 2009. He had the greatest grassroots army ever assembled in U.S. political history, one extremely eager to keep fighting. Instead, Obama essentially told them to go home, stay out of his hair, and let him handle things from there. The Democratic Party then spent the next eight years quietly collapsing into dust across America.
Biden did not have the same energy behind him as a person. But there was certainly lots of energy to be mobilized to keep Donald Trump from returning to the White House, via bold action that Americans would feel in their everyday lives. The Democrats have not done this.
One potential explanation for this is what can be called “The Iron Law of Institutions” — i.e., that people within institutions like the Democratic Party are primarily interested in maintaining power inside the institution, rather than the institution’s overall success. Any steps to expand the party’s power would require bringing in new constituencies, which would in turn lead to some current constituencies losing their status.
This phenomenon could be seen clearly in the 1972 election. George McGovern won the Democratic nomination by taking advantage of new rules which had made the process much more small-d democratic; he sought out donors and voters from the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, the youth movement, and more. The old guard of the Democratic Party did not like this at all. During the period between the convention and the election, they were given to saying that McGovern was “gonna lose because we’re gonna make sure he’s gonna lose.” After McGovern did lose badly, his campaign gave their list of 600,000 volunteers and small donors to the Democratic National Committee, then run by the Robert Strauss, a right-wing powerbroker from Texas. The DNC promptly threw the list away.
Whatever the reason for Democratic stasis, it’s perplexing: Even if they don’t care about making things better for Americans, you might think they’d be interested in self-preservation. Biden, for instance, will probably be impeached if Republicans take back the House in the 2022 midterm elections. But this has not produced enough motivation for the Democrats to seriously try to make any of the following things happen.
Use the Full Power of the Presidency
Presidents have enormous unilateral power, if they choose to use it. Biden doesn’t need Congress to cancel student debt (as a candidate he called for forgiveness of “a minimum of $10,000/person”); make marijuana effectively legal (Biden’s lack of action has frustrated even some Republicans); or force drug companies to lower prices (as issue Democrats have purportedly supported for 30 years). Biden has done none of these things, although he has utilized executive orders in some areas.
Protect the Vote
There is no future for Democrats, or democracy, if the GOP succeeds in its ever-more strenuous efforts to undermine the meaningfulness of the ballot. There are three main things Democrats must do to prevent this, but haven’t.
First, they have to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. In 2013, the Supreme Court killed the most significant part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires that jurisdictions that have engaged in discrimination get permission from the federal government before changing their voting laws. The JLVRAA would restore preclearance.
Second, they have to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, which has eight cosponsors in the Senate, including Manchin. The bill incorporates many provisions of the now-dead For the People Act, and would prevent partisan gerrymandering, purges of voter rolls, restrictions on ballot access, and more.
Third, they must reform the Electoral Count Act of 1887, a badly written law that Trump’s allies planned to use to keep him in office despite his loss of the election.
Kill the Filibuster
The Senate was designed by James Madison to, in his words, “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” The filibuster was invented by accident in 1806 and has generally been used to protect the opulent and thwart the will of the majority even more adamantly than Madison envisioned.
The Democrats could eliminate or restrict the filibuster today if they wanted to. So far they haven’t wanted to.
Get People $2,000 Checks
Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both won in the January 5 Georgia Senate runoff election by promising voters that if they won, eligible Americans would receive $2,000 in additional support during the pandemic. Biden promised it too, saying, “Their election will put an end to the block in Washington — that $2,000 stimulus check — that money would go out the door immediately.” Then both Warnock and Ossoff did win. Then it turned out $2,000 didn’t mean $2,000, but rather $1,400, because Democrats were now counting $600 from a bill already passed in December 2020 under Trump. A Democratic politician even edited a Warnock ad to convert the $2,000 into $1,400. Psych!
Raise the Minimum Wage to $15 an Hour
“There should be a national minimum wage of $15 an hour,” Biden said in his first address to Congress in April. Then the Senate parliamentarian declared that raising the minimum wage could not pass via budget reconciliation and hence would need to overcome a filibuster. The Democrats could have ignored the parliamentarian or — as both Democrats and Republicans have done to previous parliamentarians — dismissed her. Instead they’ve just given up, leaving the minimum wage at $7.25 — about the same level in real terms as during the 1950s. (In fairness, Biden has issued an executive order increasing the minimum wage to $15 for federal contractors.)
The world desperately needs the U.S. to take action to decarbonize the American economy. Various measures to make this happen were in various versions of the Build Back Better bills. But with the BBB agenda on life support, it’s anyone’s guess whether there will be significant climate accomplishments during the Biden administration.
Protect the Right to Abortion
Even if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, Congress possesses the power to prevent states from making it illegal. Of course, Texas has demonstrated how far the GOP will go to restrict abortion access even without a Roe decision. But Congress can also stop such state-level efforts. The House has passed such a bill, but it has no chance in the Senate.
Pass the PRO Act
Organized labor has always been the backbone of successful progressive politics, in the U.S. and around the world, and any progressive party would prioritize rejuvenating the labor movement. The decline of the U.S. middle class can be measured in the decline in unions: Almost 30 percent of the workforce was unionized in the 1950s. It’s now barely 10 percent overall, and only 6 percent in the private sector. The Protect the Right to Organize Act would have made organizing unions much easier. (Some of the PRO Act was incorporated into a version of the Build Back Better bill, but again, it’s now unclear whether any BBB law will pass.)
Make the Child Tax Credit Expansion Permanent
The increase of the Child Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan is estimated to have reduced child poverty in the U.S. by 40 percent. It is a moral and policy slam dunk and should be a political slam dunk — actual, material support for family values, rather than cynical rhetoric. But the expansion will expire on January 1, 2022.
Get Free Masks and Home Covid-19 Tests to Everyone
It shouldn’t be beyond the capacity of the U.S. government to simply mail lots of high-quality masks and home Covid tests to everyone in the country, but apparently it is.
Expand the Supreme Court
There are six justices on the Supreme Court appointed by GOP presidents. Yet only one of them, Clarence Thomas, was appointed by a Republican president who was first elected with a plurality of votes. (John Roberts and Samuel Alito were appointed by George W. Bush in his second term.)
The current court’s makeup guarantees that any new Democratic initiatives will face a real prospect of being declared unconstitutional. This is so blatantly anti-democratic that it will inevitably lead to some kind of political explosion. The only way to defuse this would be to add members to the court appointed by Biden, plus some common-sense reforms that would lower the stakes of future appointments. Biden created a commission to study what to do about the court, the classic move when you plan to do nothing.
Make Stephen Breyer Retire
At the very least, Democrats could have exerted pressure in every way possible to encourage Stephen Breyer to retire, so Biden could replace him with a younger justice. Breyer, now 83, has seen Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s example right in front of him: She was diagnosed with two forms of cancer yet refused to step down during the Obama presidency, finally dying while Trump was president. Yet this seems to have made no impression on either Breyer or Democratic elites, who surely could influence him if they wanted to.
Make Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico States
The disenfranchisement of Washington, D.C. residents is an incredible, ongoing scandal — yet it endures because ending it would lessen GOP power, and Democrats don’t press the issue. With a population larger than that of Wyoming and Vermont, D.C. has no representation in the Senate, and one representative in the House, who can sometimes vote as long as it doesn’t matter. D.C. residents clearly want statehood and should get it.
Meanwhile, more people live in Puerto Rico than 20 states. The most recent referendum on statehood there found a small majority does want to become a member of the union.
Change U.S. Foreign Policy
Biden has pumped the brakes on the U.S. use of drones, and he managed to withdraw from Afghanistan, something three previous presidents couldn’t bring themselves to do. But beyond that, his foreign policy trundles onward down predictable paths. He’s spoken nice words about ending the Saudi war on Yemen, with little follow-up in reality. Remarkably, he did not move immediately to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by Obama — and with the election of a new Iranian president in June, the window for that may have closed. His policy toward China bears a lot of similarities to that of Trump’s.
Save Untold Millions of Afghan From Starvation
Thanks to a drought, plus U.S. sanctions and a halt to much international aid after the Taliban takeover, tens of millions of Afghans face potentially life-threatening hunger this winter. Aid organizations say a million Afghan children could die. It’s within the power of the Biden administration to greatly ameliorate this situation, but so far it’s largely paid lip service to any humanitarian concerns. Members of the Senate appear to share a bipartisan indifference to this looming catastrophe.
That brings us to 2022, which begins tomorrow. It is, of course, theoretically possible that the Democrats will take significant action on some of these issues in the coming year. But with rare exceptions, that’s not how U.S. politics work. The biggest things happen in a president’s first year in office, or they don’t happen at all.