November 30, 2021

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Big Democratic Ideas That Make Everything Better

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, speaks during a campaign event in Jackson, Miss., March 8, 2020. (Courtland Wells/The New York Times)
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, speaks during a campaign event in Jackson, Miss., March 8, 2020. (Courtland Wells/The New York Times)

More than 36 million Americans are suddenly unemployed. Congress has allocated $2.2 trillion in aid, with more likely to be on the way as a fight looms over government debt. Millions more people are losing their health insurance and struggling to take care of their children and aging relatives. And nearly 90,000 are dead in a continuing public health catastrophe.

This was not the scenario Joe Biden anticipated confronting when he competed for the Democratic nomination on a conventional left-of-center platform. Now, with Biden leading President Donald Trump in the polls, the former vice president and other Democratic leaders are racing to assemble a new governing agenda that meets the extraordinary times — and they agree it must be far bolder than anything the party establishment has embraced before.

So far, neither Biden nor Trump has defined in itemized terms what an agenda for the first 100 days of a new presidency in the coronavirus era might look like. But on the Democratic side, far more than within the Republican Party, there is an increasingly clear sense of the nature and scale of the goals a new administration would pursue.

Biden’s campaign has been rapidly expanding its policy-drafting apparatus, with the former vice president promising to detail plans for “the right kind of economic recovery” within weeks. He has already effectively shed his primary-season theme of restoring political normalcy to the country, replacing it with promises of sweeping economic change.

On Wednesday, Biden signaled anew that he was willing to reopen his policy platform, announcing six policy task forces — covering issues including health care, climate and immigration, as well as the economy — that combine his core supporters with left-wing allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders, his vanquished primary opponent.

The formation of those committees was aimed in part at easing divisions between Democrats that are already flaring on subjects like the size of a potential infrastructure bill and the intractable issue of health care. Despite having dashed Sanders’ populist insurgency in the primary, Biden is still facing loud calls from his party’s activist wing to adopt ideas he has firmly resisted, like single-payer health care.

But in several areas there are already strong signs of consensus within Biden’s party, as once-cautious electoral and legislative tacticians shed their opposition to huge price tags and disruptive change amid a crisis that has melted traditional obstacles to government action.

Democratic leaders say that if they hold power next January, they must be prepared to move to pump trillions more into the economy; enact infrastructure and climate legislation far larger than they previously envisioned; pass a raft of aggressive worker-protection laws; expand government-backed health insurance; and create enormous new investments in public health jobs, health care facilities and child care programs.

Discussions are also underway, some of them involving Republicans, about policies that would ban stock buybacks and compel big corporations to share more of their profits with workers.

And there is more to come: Interviews with more than a dozen influential lawmakers, union leaders, think tank experts and advisers to Biden and other senior Democrats revealed an intensifying set of deliberations in the Zoom meetings of Biden’s campaign, the skeletally staffed offices of Capitol Hill, and a web of conference calls and email chains initiated by powerful Democratic interest groups. Across all of them, there is a sense that Democrats must use the next six months — with an unpredictable campaign still in progress — to prepare to act swiftly in case they get the chance.

“There is a recognition that this event is more transformative than 2008, more transformative than 9/11, more transformative than the fall of the Berlin Wall,” said Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, a centrist Democrat.

The party’s moderates, Warner said, had begun to think “exponentially bigger” about a legislative vision for overhauling the economy.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who since ending her presidential campaign has laid out an array of plans for countering the pandemic, said she saw a widening recognition within her party that it faced “a big moment that we must meet with big ideas.” Warren, who has recently spoken several times about policy with Biden, said she believed the former vice president saw the moment in similarly urgent terms.

“The coronavirus has pushed to the front the need for real change,” said Warren, a contender to be Biden’s running mate. “Families need more economic security, and we need an economy overall that has more resilience and more protection built in for helping each other in a time of crisis.”

For Biden and other leaders of the Democratic establishment, a difficult balancing act still awaits as they navigate competing pressures from their party’s left flank and the middle-of-the-road voters Biden is determined to court in the general election. If the current political mood and conditions of the country seem ready-made for promises of dramatic change, that does not necessarily mean most voters are hungering for the same wish list as the ideological left.

As Biden surely knows from his years as vice president — most of all the battle over the Affordable Care Act — voters who demand new policies from the government in one moment may not patiently endure the disruptions and unintended consequences that tend to accompany structural change, particularly in times of economic hardship.

Yet Biden has plainly changed his outlook on the mission he would pursue in office: As a newly announced presidential candidate last year, Biden presented himself as a tinkerer under whom “nothing would fundamentally change.”

That spirit was absent from a speech Biden delivered this month from his porch in Delaware, telling voters that his aim was “not just to rebuild the economy but to transform it.”

The task of reimagining the economy is in many respects an unlikely one for Biden, whose driving interests for most of his career were foreign affairs and criminal justice. His most prominent stint as an economic leader came as vice president, when the Obama administration shepherded a reeling financial sector back to functionality and imposed new regulations on Wall Street — but stopped well short of seeking to overhaul the nature of the U.S. private sector and rewrite the rules of the workplace.

Biden earned praise for his high-profile role overseeing the distribution of a $787 billion economic stimulus program. But the Recovery Act has come to be seen by many Democrats as something of a cautionary tale about governing in a recession — a law that stitched up a tattered economy but failed to spur a strong comeback, leading to deep electoral losses for the party.

It is a scenario Democratic leaders are determined not to repeat, particularly progressives who have long faulted the Obama administration for paring back the stimulus in the hope of winning Republican support.

Many of Biden’s close advisers are veterans of the Obama administration with similar political scars from the last recession. But the Biden campaign has also begun to recruit and corral scores of other Democratic experts into a web of advisory groups aimed at generating policy faster and with greater ambition. Stef Feldman, Biden’s policy director, said much of the campaign’s energy was devoted to mapping out a “quick slate of executive actions” to address pandemic conditions and carry out other aspects of Biden’s agenda.

But Biden is also soliciting input from a range of party luminaries outside his campaign, some of whom described him as eager for new ideas.

“I think that he wants to work and support working families, and I think he’s interested in hearing programs and thinking outside the box as far as what needs to be developed to achieve that goal,” said Lee Saunders, president of the government workers’ union AFSCME, who has spoken several times recently with Biden.

Separate from the Biden campaign, about three dozen influential figures at labor unions, think tanks and other progressive institutions have convened a weekly virtual meeting — known as the Friday Morning Group — with the same goal, according to multiple participants who spoke about the sessions on the condition of anonymity. Among its motivating forces is a view that liberal Democrats failed in the last recession to take the initiative in specifying plans for achieving large-scale change.

This convening of progressive minds, one of several brainstorming and planning initiatives underway in Washington, has mulled a range of policy options, including mainstream proposals like major new spending on public health and child care and less widely supported options like creating a universal basic income or offering a federal jobs guarantee.

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 1 million health care workers, said she had briefed Democratic lawmakers in both the House and Senate about her organization’s view that it was time to “change the rules of the economy for the long term,” including a powerful expansion of the rights and employment benefits of lower-income workers.

“We don’t want to stand for any short-term fixes when we need a total overhaul,” said Henry, who has also been in touch with the Biden campaign.

Hanging over Biden’s plans will be uncertainty about elections for the House and Senate that will determine whether Biden would have cooperative Democratic majorities or face opposition from a Republican-held Senate aligned with conservative business interests. Trump, who has said little about his goals for another term, has begun accusing Democrats of imperiling an economic recovery by proposing new regulations and taxes.

For now, however, the political atmosphere seems to be one of demand for more aggressive action: One Democratic group, Navigator Research, which has been conducting daily polling on the pandemic, found large majorities of voters concerned that the government would do too little to help people and eager for the government to do more, even if it cost a lot of money.

Jake Sullivan, one of Biden’s closest policy advisers, said the former vice president had not shed the underlying view of the U.S. economy that defined his candidacy for much of the last year, when Biden rejected calls for his party to embrace the agenda of democratic socialism. But, he said, the external circumstances facing a potential Biden administration were different now.

“We are going to have to do more, push further, be more creative coming out of this once-in-a-century pandemic — no doubt about it,” Sullivan said.

According to several aides, Biden is expected to produce detailed plans for funding health care jobs and green infrastructure, and initiatives to rebuild the domestic manufacturing of critical supplies and help Americans who lost jobs in the most devastated industries find lasting employment.

In his speech on the economy this month, Biden also said he wanted to “insist that big corporations, which we’ve bailed out twice in 12 years, set up and take responsibility for their workers and their communities” — a striking flash of populist sentiment that Biden has not yet translated fully into policy.

Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, a moderate Democrat who also ran for president last year, said he hoped Biden would embrace policies that would shift wealth and economic power away from the extremely rich and toward workers and middle-class people hit hardest by the pandemic.

Bennet, who has proposed a range of tax and health benefits for low- and middle-income households, said he saw a window for action that did not exist during the last recession.

“I think there was not the same recognition 10 years ago that there is today that we’ve had 50 years of an economy that only works for people at the very top,” Bennet said, adding with blunt impatience, “I think a decade of not achieving the stuff we need to achieve is probably enough.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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