President Biden might think back to his time as the pugnacious, counterpunching vice president to the cool, cerebral Barack Obama. Whether dismantling Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan in the 2012 debate or taking on Wall Street financial firms that crashed the economy in 2008, he personified the scrappy son of Scranton, Pa., and bonded with working-class voters.
Biden could do with some of that fight now. As inflation and the pandemic run its course (Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell has more to do with the former, and self-destructive vaccine holdouts with the latter), Biden has no shortage of attractive targets. By battling unpopular figures, he just might convince voters he’s slugging away on their behalf — and that Republicans aren’t on their side.
Putting Biden and his party on the side of workers, making the party unequivocally pro-work and pro-family, tackling crime and going after social media miscreants won’t solve inflation or covid, but they could help his standing and begin to remake his party’s brand.
Instead of telling struggling working-class families all the things he is “giving them,” he might try taking on big corporations that have never been more profitable and, in many cases, pay no taxes. Demand they start paying a living wage to workers. Stand with union organizers, who had a pretty good year in 2021. Better yet, go out around the country and celebrate some organizing wins with workers.
If he wants to be on the side of the little guy, Biden might want to turn up the heat on fat-cat CEOs and their corporate lobbyists who fought off significant tax hikes. Sign executive orders requiring public disclosure of their lobbying and the differential between CEO and average workers’ salaries. In doing so he might want to remind voters that Republicans are in the pocket of big business, doing their bidding to block regulations and prevent tax hikes. Remarkably, Biden has barely attacked Republicans for underfunding the Internal Revenue Service so it cannot go after the big corporations and billionaires avoiding their taxes.
While he is at it, Biden can recapture the issue of work and family. He is trying to create better jobs and alleviate working parents’ child-care woes; red-state governors are allowing anti-vaxxers to leave their jobs and collect unemployment. Sloth! Dependency! Biden should condemn the notion that taxpayers should foot the bill for vaccine refusers. And if the Democrats cannot get the child tax credit into the reconciliation package, the least they can do is put it on the floor in a separate bill. Make Republicans filibuster the best anti-poverty policy we have had in decades — make clear Republicans have not offered a single program to boost families or make child care more affordable.
Biden also would do well to recapture the law-and-order issue. Minimizing concerns about crime or trying to turn crime into a gun-safety issue is a mistake. He can remind Americans that Republicans have made excuses for and minimized the brutality of the Jan. 6 insurrections against the police. They have mocked the police officers who testified before the Jan. 6 committee. Voters care about crime, so why not come up with a tough crime bill that funds police while training them to de-escalate conflicts? And add stiffer penalties against intimidating election workers and other public officials in a crime bill, not a voting bill. Take on the thugs, and condemn Republican politicians who wink at violence or peddle in violent imagery.
Finally, many Americans think social media companies are bad actors. Whether it’s knowingly damaging children’s self-image, allowing the spread of anti-vaccine and voting disinformation or inciting racial hatred, these companies have made themselves into cartoon villains that undermine the health and safety of Americans and of our democracy. Biden can champion efforts to force them to be transparent about their manipulative algorithms and to cut back on their insulation from liability for things they post. (They should only get the protection from lawsuits if they can demonstrate effective monitoring and removal of a very high percentage of material that violates their own terms of service.)
Biden does not have a magic wand to make inflation or the pandemic vanish. What he can do is give stressed working- and middle-class families a sense that the president is fighting on their behalf against big powerful forces (which, by the way dominate the GOP). Unity and bipartisanship are nice in theory. But whatever mileage Biden has gotten out of trying to rise above the political fray has been used up. In making sharp distinctions between a real populist party and a party that does Wall Street’s bidding, he can at least get out of his defensive crouch. Protecting Americans against rapacious corporations and their Republican patsies, criminals and predatory social media platforms may turn out to be good policy and good politics.