“When news of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death went out on the wires, an editor in Chicago turned to one of his colleagues and said, ‘Clear the decks for action,’” Biden told the crowd at Roosevelt’s convalescent retreat. “Well, I say to you today, if you give me the honor of serving as your president, clear the decks for action, for we will act!”
Biden’s promises that followed were, though well-known from repetition, collectively enormous in aspiration: “Get covid under control … reward work, not wealth … affordable, accessible health care for every American and drug prices that are dramatically lower … meeting the challenges of a climate crisis while creating millions of good, high-paying labor jobs … address systemic racism … restore our faith in democracy and our faith in one another.”
It’s easy to miss the sweep of action implied in these words, for Biden, temperamentally, is the very picture of moderation, restrained and mild. And, compared with some of his rivals in the Democratic presidential primary, he is moderate — a practical politician, not an ideologue, eschewing left-wing favorites such as the Green New Deal, Medicare-for-all and defunding the police.
But this obscures the dramatic ways in which the country has shifted since 2016, and the ways in which the Democratic Party, and Biden as the leader of it, have shifted with it. It is no exaggeration to say, as former president Barack Obama did, that Biden’s is “the most progressive platform of any major-party nominee in history.”
Biden is no FDR, you say? Well, FDR wasn’t FDR — a slick politician, he had run as a moderate before depression and war demanded massive responses. Likewise, Biden’s bold and ambitious agenda came about because the triple crises of the moment — of health, economics and race — demand dramatic action.
“I think he’s pushed to it by the moment, but here we are,” Felicia Wong, head of the Roosevelt Institute, tells me. Like Biden, Roosevelt was a practical politician “moved by the moment.” Wong, who is also on Biden’s newly formed transition advisory board, thinks the FDR comparison is apt, because “much of Biden’s agenda” — including $2 trillion to build a carbon-free economy — “is transformative.”
One senior Biden campaign aide describes the candidate’s massive agenda to me as “the same Biden we were seeing in the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s, but scaled up to meet the horrific, unique moment.”
On health care, Biden proposes a public option that everyone could buy into, regardless of whether they have insurance through their employers. He plans to spend an additional $750 billion on health care over 10 years, in part to give consumers bigger subsidies. And Biden would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices with manufacturers while holding price increases to inflation.
On taxes, Biden proposes to tax capital gains at the same rate as earned income for those earning more than $1 million — an elusive holy grail for progressives for years — so that wealth is no longer rewarded more than work. He hasn’t been shy about his desire to make those earning more than $400,000 pay a greater share.
Biden promises universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds and a sliding-scale tax credit of up to $8,000 to help low- and middle-income Americans pay for child care. He pledges home-based Medicaid care for seniors and those with disabilities, including the hundreds of thousands now on a waiting list.
The list is extensive: doubling Pell Grants, banning workplace discrimination against LGBTQ Americans, protections for domestic workers, removing liability protection for gun manufacturers, two years of free community college, tripling spending on low-income schools, a $15 minimum wage, lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 60. And Biden is stocking his transition team with progressive figures devoted to the cause.
Neera Tanden, who runs the progressive Center for American Progress, sees a lot of 1932 in 2020. Then as now, a conservative vision — leave it to the markets and the states — had “failed miserably.” Roosevelt, though no Marxist, was a practical man who recognized that the country needed powerful, collective action.
Now Biden, though no socialist, is pragmatic enough to see that the world has shifted — and that this country hungers for a new New Deal.