The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden begins to map out ‘revolutionary’ agenda, reimagining his presidency amid national upheaval

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden departs after speaking Tuesday in Philadelphia about President Trump's response to racial inequality protests across the nation.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden departs after speaking Tuesday in Philadelphia about President Trump's response to racial inequality protests across the nation. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

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As Joe Biden’s general election campaign has revved to life amid an extraordinary swirl of national upheaval, the presumptive Democratic nominee has begun to sketch out a dramatically different sort of presidency than the one he had envisioned when he secured the nomination two months ago.

The turmoil across the country, punctuated this week with authorities’ use of force against peaceful protesters near the White House, has caused a rethinking for a candidate who once promised donors that under his administration “nothing would fundamentally change” and who, just 11 weeks ago during his final primary debate, offered himself as a pragmatist, unlike his socialist rival Sen. Bernie Sanders, declaring: “People are looking for results, not a revolution.”

Former vice president Joe Biden opened his June 2 address with, "I can't breathe," saying those words are "a wake up call to our nation." (Video: The Washington Post)

Now, in virtual town hall meetings, media interviews, his own podcast and in a rare formal address Tuesday, Biden has pointed toward a transformational era in which government would play a bigger role in curing the country’s public health, economic and racial woes. Far from the incremental administration he promised on the primary campaign trail, Biden now offers President Franklin D. Roosevelt, architect of the post-Great Depression New Deal, as a role model for tackling the damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans and put millions out of work as well as the enduring effects of systemic racism being challenged by a newly energized protest movement.

“The history of this nation teaches us that it’s in some of our darkest moments of despair that we’ve made some of our greatest progress,” Biden said in his Tuesday speech in Philadelphia. He added: “The moment has come for our nation to deal with systemic racism. To deal with the growing economic inequity that exists in our nation, to deal with the denial of the promise of this nation.”

Biden, seeking a contrast with Trump, denounces the incumbent’s show of force against protesters and vows to heal racial wounds

The change has thus far been largely rhetorical, offered not as the more sweeping policy pronouncements his advisers say are coming but, rather, as ideas tossed out during his public appearances and conversations. Left unstated is the extent to which Biden’s words represent his reaction to a political moment or an actual ideological shift that could reorient the candidate — and the party — for years if not decades.

He has talked about how moods are changing, and that “the blinders have been taken off” and average Americans are now more clearly seeing the grocery store workers, nurses and postal employees that they previously overlooked.

“We need some revolutionary institutional changes,” Biden said recently on a podcast appearance with former rival Andrew Yang, who is best known for pushing a policy of universal basic income.

During their conversation, Biden promoted an expansive new proposal of his own that would have the federal government pay half the salaries of employees at struggling businesses to avert mass layoffs because of the pandemic.

Racial tragedies add to pressure on Joe Biden to create a racially balanced ticket

Where President Trump has been reluctant to invoke wartime powers to enlist private industry to combat the pandemic, Biden has said he would consider using those powers to force banks to make loans to struggling companies.

He has talked about creating a vast new health-care workforce to combat covid-19 before later turning toward other epidemics like opioids.

And on Friday, responding to mass protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, Biden vowed to press for “real police reform,” calling on the country to “face the deep, open wound” of systemic racism.

Some liberals, while optimistic, aren’t yet convinced.

They see Biden, 77, who as a senator and vice president was known for seeking compromise with Republicans, as a politician from the establishment wing of his party — and they wonder if he is truly changing.

“I heard him say, ‘I’m going to have an FDR-style administration.’ I was like, ‘Whoa. Really? Interesting. That’s not at all what you’ve been saying the last two years or your entire political career,’” said Varshini Prakash, the executive director of the liberal Sunrise Movement, a climate advocacy group.

Prakash and several other prominent liberals, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), have joined policy discussions with the Biden campaign as members of newly formed policy task forces designed to forge an agenda that would help win over the pro-Sanders wing of the party.

“I’m hopeful,” Prakash said of Biden’s rhetorical shifts and the work being done on the climate task force. “But it’s too soon to say whether it’s real or not.”

Aides and allies say Biden’s rethinking reflects the deepening troubles enveloping the country and a growing sense among the former vice president’s team that they would take power at a perilous moment — with tens of millions of Americans out of work, a coronavirus vaccine still in the testing phase and the country emerging from what will no doubt be as bitter and polarizing a campaign as it has ever experienced.

The agenda remains a work in progress, as Biden confers regularly with a wide array of advisers and supporters, aides say.

He has been talking regularly with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a potential running mate whose liberal policies were a pacesetter during the primary as she pushed forcefully for transformational changes to the American financial system.

“The crisis has revealed to him a set of structural flaws about how exposed different groups of people are to economic shocks,” said Jared Bernstein, a longtime Biden economic adviser.

Biden is expected to roll out sweeping new policy proposals in the coming weeks that will call for a more assertive federal government that would pump spending into infrastructure and initiatives aimed at curbing climate change. They will build upon his previous proposals for new worker-protection laws, increasing the federal minimum wage and expanding government-run health-care coverage, advisers said.

While his discussions would give him a more robust platform to run on in the campaign, he is also trying to prepare for what his first 100 days would look like as president, a period that would carry some echoes of the early Obama years when Biden oversaw the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed following the 2008 financial collapse.

“He’s pretty focused in these economic briefings on what we are going to inherit and what are we going to do about it,” said Jake Sullivan, one of Biden’s top policy advisers. “When he wakes up in the morning, that’s what is on his mind. Yes, he has to win, and he doesn’t take that for granted. But he can’t escape the basic fact that he’s going to have to dig the American economy out of a ditch for the second time in 12 years.”

Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor and White House chief of staff who has been in regular conversations with Biden and his team, noted that Biden not long ago was referring to himself as a “transition candidate,” one who would serve largely as a bridge to the next generation.

“He now has to think policy-wise as a transformational president,” Emanuel said. “It requires a whole different way to think about this.”

Biden has recently been adopting rhetoric that is more populist, tapping into what his campaign believes is a change in the mood of the country.

In one recent town hall, Biden grew agitated about the amount of money flowing toward large hotel chains and corporations before he said, “Not one more penny should go to a Fortune 500 company. Period. Period. Not one penny. They don’t need it.”

He referenced Upton Sinclair, who wrote in the early 1900s about poor working conditions in the meatpacking industry, and how conditions remain in need of improvement today. “No worker’s life is worth me getting a cheaper hamburger,” he said. “We don’t treat workers well at all across the board. You’d think [free-market economist] Milton Friedman was running everything these days, God rest his soul.”

Biden has started talking publicly about a fourth industrial revolution, and privately has talked with advisers about combating the long-term damage that the economic fallout could have on unemployed workers. He’s planning a robust spending package that would shed most of his prior concerns about growing the deficit, according to advisers. As one put it: “He’s not going to be talking about austerity come January 2021.”

Bernstein said the political circumstances are far different now than they were when he was negotiating the post-2008 economic recovery.

“There are things we have learned. I would argue that they are lessons learned by mainstream Democrats,” he said. “They have moved to the left on deficits and debt, trade policy, labor, a range of things. They are now key platforms of mainstream Democrats. Whereas before you had to go pretty far out to the left to find them.”

Biden has adopted some of Warren’s proposals, including calling for canceling at least $10,000 of student loan debt and increasing Social Security payments by $200 per month. He has talked to Yang about using different ways to measure the economy.

“When Joe Biden was running for president [in the primary], was he running on a long list of policy proposals? Not really,” Yang said in an interview. “What Joe has is he’s not ideologically dogmatic at all. He is pragmatic. And in many ways, he may be the ideal leader to help organize a different approach to government that could look like a 21st-century New Deal.”

Health care remains one exception, with Biden stopping short of endorsing the Medicare-for-all plan that was the centerpiece cause for Sanders (I-Vt.) and a galvanizing issue for much of his base.

“I do not support Medicare-for-all,” Biden said last week on CNBC. “I will not support Medicare-for-all.”

Instead he has signaled he is open to building on the Affordable Care Act in a way that would expand coverage. He has started emphasizing the need for universal health-care coverage, particularly as job losses cut off employer-sponsored health-care plans.

“He does see there is a window to take action and make progress that didn’t exist before the coronavirus,” said Stef Feldman, the Biden campaign’s policy director. “He has called for action on health care to create a public option as quickly as possible. The coronavirus has only deepened his resolve to achieve his health-care plan.”

Biden has also said that every American should have access to a coronavirus test, at no cost to them. And if a vaccine is discovered, he said last week, he would make sure every person can get an inoculation at no cost.

His repeated references to FDR, in public and private conversations, have become a touchstone for the kinds of changes he has started to envision. And historians say the analogy is a favorable one for Biden, capturing the turmoil of 1932 that led to a new era of government intervention.

“When Franklin Roosevelt came to the presidency, the country was in the depths of a crisis,” said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian who has written several books on Roosevelt. “Unemployment had reached about 25 percent, the economy was in a state of collapse. This was a time when Adolf Hitler and Mussolini were very much in the news, on the scene. And there was a feeling that maybe democracy and capitalism as we’ve known it, free enterprise were at an end.”

During a commencement address last week at Columbia Law School, Biden quoted from a commencement address Roosevelt had given six months before winning the presidency, in which he tried to encourage graduates who would enter the workforce in the Great Depression.

“ ‘Yours is not the task of making your way in the world. But the task of remaking the world, which you will find before you,’ ” he quoted Roosevelt as saying. “When he won the presidency six months later, he knew that overcoming the immediate crisis was just job one. Job two was what comes next.”