Former Vice President Joe Biden has never really sought or received a reputation as a deep thinker on domestic policy matters. His highest-profile role as a senator involved judicial confirmations and his time chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee. As vice president, his best-known work was in the national security domain or as a personal emissary from the White House to Congress.
As a candidate in the 2020 primaries, his pitch was overwhelmingly about electability; his policy profile was defined primarily by the things he wouldn’t embrace. Left-wing journalists and activists criticized his opposition to sweeping proposals from Sen. Bernie Sanders like Medicare-for-all or the Green New Deal. Biden argued that plans were implausible to make real and that he would take a more pragmatic approach — frustrating proponents of a “political revolution” or Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s “big structural change.”
That conflict between what the left wants and what Biden wouldn’t give them became the dominant narrative about him in the mainstream press. Biden was defined by the things he was against, rather than by the substantial overlap between his policy ideas and those of his progressive critics. Biden is a mainstream Democrat, and as the Democratic Party has grown broadly more progressive in recent years, he is now running on arguably the most progressive policy platform of any Democratic nominee in history.
It’s a detailed and aggressive agenda that includes doubling the minimum wage and tripling funding for schools with low-income students. He is proposing the most sweeping overhaul of immigration policy in a generation, the biggest pro-union push in three generations, and the most ambitious environmental agenda of all time.
If Democrats take back the Senate in the fall, Biden could make his agenda happen. A primary is about airing disagreements, but legislating is about building consensus. The Democratic Party largely agrees on a suite of big policy changes that would improve the lives of millions of Americans in meaningful ways. Biden has detailed, considered plans to put much of this agenda in place. But getting these plans done will be driven much more by the outcome of the congressional elections than his questioned ambition.
A big minimum wage increase
Biden’s commitment to raising the federal minimum wage from its current $7.25 to $15 an hour is one of the least talked-about plans at stake in the 2020 election.
In the 2016 cycle when Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders disagreed about raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, the debate was the subject of extensive coverage. By the 2020 cycle, all the major Democratic candidates were on board, so it didn’t come up much. But it’s significant that this is no longer controversial in Democratic Party circles. If the party is broadly comfortable with the wage hike as a matter of both politics and substance, Democrats in Congress are likely to make it happen if it’s at all possible.
The $15/hour minimum wage increase is also a signature issue for Biden. He endorsed New York’s version of it in the fall of 2015, back when he was vice president and his boss Barack Obama was pushing a smaller federal raise.
A big minimum wage hike polls well, it aligns with Biden’s thematic emphasis on “the dignity of work,” and it’s a topic on which he’s genuinely been a leader. It reflects his political sensibilities, which are moderate but in a decidedly more populist mode than Obama’s technocratic one.
Free college for most
Biden was also an early proponent of free college, saying in a 2015 Rose Garden speech that “we all know that 12 years of public education is not enough. As a nation, let’s make the same commitment to a college education today that we made to a high school education a hundred years ago.”
In concrete terms, Biden supports the College for All Act, which Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal introduced in 2017. The act would provide matching grants to states that want to eliminate tuition at public colleges and universities for any student coming from a household with less than $125,000 in income. When he introduced the bill, Sanders noted this covers about 80 percent of American households — and more affluent households don’t have a huge barrier to higher education. But on the 2020 campaign trail, he disparaged this goal as inadequate and backed zero tuition for all students.
The big problem with these matching grant schemes has always been that there’s a good chance states won’t want to spend the money, and with the coronavirus pandemic sending state budgets into crisis, those odds only get better.
Under the circumstances, a more consequential part of Biden’s platform may be his commitment to greatly boosting the federal financial commitment to community colleges. These institutions often get neglected in the policy debate, which often involves graduates of more selective institutions. But Biden’s wife is a longtime community college instructor, so it’s an issue he has a direct personal connection with.
Biden’s plan gives a very generous boost in funding to community colleges to eliminate tuition while also proposing a number of grant programs to improve the actual quality of community college offerings, facilities, and infrastructure. Last but by no means least, Biden wants to double the size of the maximum Pell Grant award — a move that would bolster college affordability while improving states’ budgetary situations.
Enhancing the Affordable Care Act
The health care debate during the primary became a long dispute between Medicare-for-all supporters (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) and non-supporters (the other candidates, more or less).
That obscured the extent to which Biden’s plan was considerably less ambitious than other “moderate” plans from the likes of Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke. Their ideas would have created a new, beefed-up Medicare that competed directly with private insurance for non-elderly customers — likely taking advantage of Medicare’s administrative efficiencies and greater bargaining power to gobble up a huge share of the market.
Biden has proposed something more modest. His plan would add a public option to the Affordable Care Act exchanges, an old progressive proposal from the 2009 debate, which should lower costs for people shopping on the exchanges. But while Biden’s version of the public option will be formally open for anyone to join, in practice, the vast majority of Americans who haven’t reached retirement age would continue to get health care from their employers. There is seemingly no tax-efficient way for a company to shift employees into the exchanges.
In other words, Biden uses the public option to improve the situation for people currently using the ACA exchanges while not really altering the structure of job-based health insurance.
On the exchanges, individuals who don’t get insurance at work can shop for insurance on an individual regulated marketplace. They also get subsidies on a sliding scale to cap premiums as a share of income. Biden’s plan makes the subsidies more generous relative to income. He also switches the standard, aiming to make “gold”- rather than “silver”-rated plans affordable — which in practice means lower copayments and deductibles. He also extends incentives for more states to join the ACA Medicaid expansion and tweaks the subsidy formula so that low-income people in non-expansion states can have better results on the exchanges.
He pairs this relatively modest approach to health care with a very ambitious and specific opioid epidemic agenda, which Vox’s German Lopez points out commits more funds than anything his more left-wing rivals had put on the table.
Ezra Klein argued in early April that with Covid-19 leaving millions of people’s employer-provided insurance up in the air, Biden should embrace something more like Buttigieg’s Medicare for All Who Want It or the Center for American Progress’s Medicare Extra program. These ideas, which would have been considered incredibly left-wing as recently as five years ago, have now obtained an aura of moderation, so it’s at least conceivable Biden could be persuaded to hop on the bandwagon.
The biggest known unknown is probably the question of prioritization. Even during a primary season when rank-and-file Democrats indicated that health care was their top issue priority, Biden was the guy who was leery of promising a huge fight over dramatic change on this front. The joint pandemic and economic crisis could make a person more inclined to pick a major early legislative battle about health insurance — but could also have the opposite effect.
Dramatic transformation of federal housing policy
While a minimum wage hike and a big boost for community colleges have both been longtime Biden passions, his housing policy was released in late February at the tail end of the campaign, and the candidate himself has barely ever mentioned it.
Even though Biden was the last candidate in the field to release a blueprint for housing policy, what the campaign came up with is excellent on substance and aligns closely with experts’ view that there is really a dual housing crisis in America as well as with their recommendations about how to fix it. Biden’s approach has two major policy prongs, paired with a series of commitments to step up federal civil rights enforcement.
First: Biden wants to make the federal Section 8 housing voucher program an entitlement, like SNAP or Medicaid, so that all eligible families would get help — a huge change from the current situation where 75 percent of low-income families who meet the criteria for help don’t actually get any. This is a longtime goal of anti-poverty wonks that until recently didn’t seem to be on the radar of Democratic Party politicians, but which has gained considerable steam over the past two years.
Second: Biden wants to tie federal transportation funding to state and local government commitments to reduce regulatory barriers to housing construction. This is much more ambitious than the Obama administration’s proposals on housing supply, but it is the main policy recommendation of a book I wrote in 2012, so it’s a great idea.
People familiar with the development of the Biden housing agenda describe it as a subject of interest to some of his top aides rather than a personal passion of the candidate. And while Biden’s plan would be a boon to the poor and for broad economic growth, it doesn’t really address the primary housing concern of people who write about politics for a living on the internet — namely that young middle-class renters in very expensive cities would like more stringent rent control.
But beyond its technical merits, the plan has some real virtues in its implementation. That starts with the fact that the Section 8 proposal is perfectly designed to be folded into a budget reconciliation bill that could avoid the filibuster. A change to the transportation funding formula, by contrast, would have to happen on a bipartisan basis. But the idea of wielding federal carrots and sticks to encourage changes in local land use policy is one that has elite support across party lines and could conceivably make its way into the kind of bipartisan megabills on surface transportation that wend their way through Congress every few years.
A huge financial boost to schools with low-income students
K-12 education hasn’t been on the political radar that much over the past few years, but Biden is running on a pledge to triple the money the federal government sends to low-income schools and districts from about $16 billion per year to about $48 billion.
Education is primarily a state and local responsibility, but the federal government does spend a significant amount of money on grants made under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, money intended to help level the playing field between richer and poorer schools. Biden’s plan calls for the extra money to be spent on higher pay for teachers, preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds, and ensuring that advanced coursework like AP classes is available at all schools.
Biden’s emphasis on a big boost in spending reflects a swing of the pendulum in the research community in the direction of “throw money at the problem” solutions that became unfashionable in the 1990s. A wave of research indicating that how schools spent money was more important than how much money they spent helped inspire a generation of policy emphasis on “education reform” ideas like charter schools and changing teacher compensation formulas.
A newer line of research, summarized in a 2018 paper by economist Kirabo Jackson, looks at quasi-experimental evidence driven by state court decisions mandating equalization of funding between rich and poor districts, and mostly concludes that spending more money works pretty well.
That scholarship says that a 10 percent spending increase each year from kindergarten through 12th grade led students to complete a few more months of school, to earn 7.25 percent more, and to be less likely to be poor.
Biden’s plan was released before the pandemic threw state and local governments into budgetary crisis. Under present circumstances, the issue for K-12 education policy is likely going to be exactly how much is spending cut given those pressures — with Biden joining congressional Democrats to call for significant federal aid to minimize cuts.
So it is relatively unlikely that a standalone education bill, as opposed to state and local aid as part of a pandemic recovery agenda, would quickly materialize from a Biden administration. But the text of the plan is a good outline to his education priorities, and his “more is more” approach here is pretty different from the much less teacher-friendly course Obama pursued in office.
A labor-friendly climate agenda
Climate change is a huge, complicated issue, and Biden’s stated climate agenda, like proposals from other Democratic campaigns, has a lot of moving parts, covering everything from investments in advanced biofuels to clean drinking water to a proposed Securities and Exchange Commission regulatory change that would require companies with stock listed on the major markets to make public disclosures of their climate risk.
The top-line objective is to make the US economy carbon neutral by 2050, but a president whose term would span from 2021 to 2025 or 2029 can’t deliver on that commitment even with an infinitely cooperative Congress — which he also won’t have. Climate is one of the trickiest policy areas for Democrats because the gap between the goals climate scientists think are appropriate and the likely results of the legislative process is so large.
But this is an area where it’s probably not yet worth spending much time sweating the details of Biden’s existing plan. The Biden/Sanders climate working group on policy, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and former Secretary of State John Kerry and featuring the Obama administration’s former EPA director and the executive director of the Sunrise Movement, is an extremely high-powered crew. It’s widely believed in the climate policy community that there is going to be a substantial rewrite of Biden’s plan.
What’s probably more important about Biden’s climate plans is that he has angered environmental activists with his stances on three issues not directly related to the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions: Biden favors funding research into carbon capture and sequestration technologies, Biden has a favorable view of nuclear power, and Biden does not favor a short-term ban on fracking.
Some environmentalists oppose those stances, largely due to the non-carbon impacts, but, critically, Biden is on the right side of organized labor on all three topics. That emphasis on maintaining a version of a Green New Deal agenda that America’s unions can wholeheartedly back is a key priority of Biden’s and will shape his overall approach to climate policy.
Major commitments on union organizing
Biden has a big Plan A to support organized labor, and a Plan B that’s still consequential and considerably more plausible politically.
Beyond a general disposition to be a good coalition partner to organized labor, the centerpiece of Biden’s union agenda is support for the PRO Act, which passed the House of Representatives earlier this year.
That bill, were it to become law, would be the biggest victory for unions and collective bargaining since the end of World War II — overriding state “right to work” laws, barring mandatory anti-union briefings from management during organizing campaigns, imposing much more meaningful financial penalties on companies that illegally fire workers for pro-union activity, allowing organizing through a streamlined card check process, and guaranteeing public sector workers the right to bargain collectively.
Realistically, it’s very difficult to see this bill becoming law. It passed the House, but it has no prospect of obtaining bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled Senate. Even if Democrats were to win three or four Senate seats and obtain a majority, six incumbent Senate Democrats don’t support the bill, and it’s not something you could put into a reconciliation package, which would lower the bar to a simple majority. Biden has not indicated any desire to change the filibuster rule. Even if he did, there seems to be little support for significant filibuster change among Senate Democrats.
Short of massive legislative change, there are dozens of discrete areas in which regulatory policy weighs on workers’ ability to form unions and bargain collectively. Far and away Biden’s most significant promise with regard to organized labor is a pledge to “create a cabinet-level working group that will solely focus on promoting union organizing and collective bargaining in the public and private sectors.”
The Obama, Clinton, and Carter administrations were all sympathetic to unions and union concerns, but none of them made it a priority to promote union organizing. If Biden were to follow through on this in a remotely serious way, it would be a significant shift in economic policy priorities from what we’ve seen from recent Democratic presidents.
Given the extent to which Biden has run as a candidate of continuity and restoration rather than revolution, there’s good reason to doubt exactly how much appetite for pushing the envelope in this regard he really has. But a much more favorable view of unions is in line with the evolving thinking of mainstream Democratic Party economic policy hands, so it’s not out of the question by any means.
Back to the future on immigration
Biden’s immigration plan makes a very self-conscious effort to distance him from the rapid speed-up of deportations in the first four or five years of Obama’s presidency. But immigration is the area where Biden, generally, is most literally promising continuity with Obama’s approach — at least during his former boss’s second term.
Item after item after item on Biden’s immigration policy platform promises to reverse this or that Trump administration policy — the national emergency that is funding wall construction, the metering of asylum seekers at the border, the detention of children, the crackdown on legal immigrants’ ability to access social services, the efforts to deport Dreamers — and promises to take America back to the course it was on in 2016.
Biden says he’ll stop routinely yanking Temporary Protected Status from immigrants and try to go back to the Obama-era policy of “prioritizing” violent felons for deportation while otherwise relaxing interior enforcement.
At the same time, Biden doesn’t promise to decriminalize unauthorized entry into the United States, doesn’t want to abolish or “reorganize” ICE, and isn’t promising a moratorium on deportations.
Instead of those activist-favored demands, he supports comprehensive immigration reform, including the legislative establishment of a path to citizenship for millions of long-settled unauthorized workers. Many activists are frustrated when they hear Democrats talk about a legislative solution because immigration-friendly politicians have been talking about it for nearly 20 years and it keeps not happening in Congress. But it polls reasonably well and would provide a better and more stable outcome for unauthorized immigrants than the alternatives, and politicians can point to big stacks of research that say it would be economically beneficial.
If it happened, it would be a huge deal — but it’s hard to get people excited about it in part because few people believe it will actually happen.
A transformative agenda — maybe
Reviewing the Biden policy agenda is a sobering reminder that despite the mythmaking of the presidential primary process, the identity of the person sitting in the White House simply is not that decisive in the future course of domestic policy.
A Biden administration backed by a Democratic Senate majority will drastically improve living standards for people in the bottom half of the income distribution via a higher minimum wage and big new federal investments in education and health care, while taking big steps to reduce American carbon dioxide emission and invest in breakthrough clean energy technologies.
Even with a Democratic majority, however, a Biden administration is unlikely to deliver the huge shake-ups to labor and immigration law that even the most moderate candidate in the field supports, due to filibuster dynamics. And if Mitch McConnell remains Senate majority leader, it’s very unlikely that any of these things will happen.
It’s true that there’s plenty that can be done through unilateral use of executive power, and it matters which appointments Biden makes and what those appointees do. But the ability to get executive branch nominees who’ll use those powers confirmed — and the ability to install federal judges who’ll approve discretionary uses of power — ultimately depends on Senate control, at least to some degree.
But beyond that, when people talk about candidates’ policy agendas or wanting to see fundamental change in the policy landscape, they really are primarily talking about passing and signing laws. Much of what Obama achieved in a flurry of executive action has been wholly or partly unwound by Trump, but the bulk of his major legislative achievements remain in place.
Biden is proposing big enough changes on a wide enough range of topics that if he’s backed by a supportive Congress, he’ll achieve an even more substantive policy legacy than his former boss. And if he fails to achieve his ideas, the cause is much more likely to be lack of congressional support than insufficient ambition.
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