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U.S. President Joe Biden gives remarks on his administration's response to Covid-19 on January 13, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Why Democrats Should Not Run Away From Joe Biden

The conventional wisdom seems to be that Democrats shouldn't associate with the President—even though he's pushed through more progressive policy change than any President since Lyndon Johnson.

Ruth Conniff

 by The Progressive

I was standing next to a Democratic state legislator at a recent back-to-school event in Wisconsin as Democratic Governor Tony Evers announced he was dispensing $90 million in COVID-19 federal relief money for Wisconsin schools, courtesy of President Joe Biden.

Republicans have been particularly intransigent about school funding in Wisconsin, compared with other states, passing a budget that froze state spending on education for two years during the pandemic, just when students' needs were most pressing. It's only because of Biden—and the massive infusion of federal money he made available to fill the gap—that Evers has been able to govern effectively, the state legislator said, quickly adding: "I guess I shouldn't say 'Joe Biden.' "

The conventional wisdom across the country seems to be that Democrats should avoid associating with the President, despite the fact that he has done more to push through major progressive policy change than any President since Lyndon Johnson—from expanding labor rights to lifting a substantial portion of the crushing burden of student debt, to the most ambitious federal climate legislation ever.

At a Labor Day event in Milwaukee, AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler called Biden "the most pro-union president in history." Biden happily accepted the title, declaring that "unions built the middle class" and touting his administration's efforts to restore labor rights. While he hasn't succeeded in getting the landmark Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act passed, through a series of executive orders, and parts of other legislation, including the infrastructure bill's requirement that contractors pay prevailing wages, he has "kicked the door down," according to Steve Rosenthal, a former political director at the AFL-CIO. " 'We went through decades of Democratic presidents' who 'didn't say the "u" word,' " Rosenthal told Politico. Biden is different.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act in the 1930s, establishing federal rights for workers to form unions, "He didn't say it was OK to vote [for unions]," Biden said. "The language read: We should encourage unions." To the cheering pro-union crowd in Wisconsin, Biden declared, "Well, I'm encouraging unions!" And unions are definitely encouraging voters to support Biden.

Notably absent from the stage on Labor Day, however, was Wisconsin's Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, the candidate who talks about growing up in a union household, and who hopes to defeat anti-labor, pro-Trump Republican Senator Ron Johnson in one of the most closely watched midterm elections in the country this November.

Biden praised Barnes from the stage. But Barnes, the dynamic thirty-five-year-old who would become the state's first African American U.S. Senator, had "another commitment" during the rally. His campaign apparently calculated, as so many Democratic consultants seem to be doing lately, that appearing on stage with the President was not a savvy political move.

The chorus from the right and left in Washington, D.C., and around the country, is that Biden is a liability for Democrats. Young progressives and old Beltway pundits alike are calling for him to step down and make way for another candidate in 2024. Never mind that there is no obvious choice to replace the leader of the Democratic Party. How, exactly, Democrats plan to win the midterms by running away from their own President is not clear, either.

Yes, Biden is old. So is Donald Trump. Perhaps a younger person could be more exciting, a more dynamic campaigner, more appealing on TV. But more effective? Probably not. And Biden's recent speeches denouncing the threat Trump poses to democracy are spot on.

The contrast between Republicans, who are still falling in line with Trump, and Democrats, who are openly grousing about falling out of love with Biden, is a good illustration of why our country has been pulled so far to the right. Our team—Democrats and people who don't belong to the party but share broadly progressive politics—cannot seem to get together behind achievable success.

Our team—Democrats and people who don't belong to the party but share broadly progressive politics—cannot seem to get together behind achievable success.

This phenomenon is exacerbated by a cynical pundit class that loves to predict doom for boring old Biden. And let's not forget that CNN experienced a ratings crash, losing nearly 50 percent of its target audience, after Trump left office. Could it be that the network misses Trump's reality TV show presidency?

Consider this recent analysis by Stephen Collinson, a political reporter for CNN: "For all of his references to his Republican 'friends' in Congress, Biden is in danger of being seen as branding all Republican voters as extremists dedicated to 'semi-fascism' "—the phrase Biden has used to describe fellow Republicans including Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, and Wisconsin's Ron Johnson, both of whom refused to condemn the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Graham also warned of mob violence against the FBI after agents removed stolen classified documents from Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

"The President's fierce rhetorical offensive could also destroy his reputation for moderation and his previous calls for unity, which were attractive to some voters in 2020," Collinson wrote.

OK, but what about reality? Punditry like that fails to take into account that "semi-fascism" is an understatement. We are now living in a country where one political party is willing to indulge people who want to violently overthrow the government, based on the lie that Trump won the election.

Wisconsin is one of the states that sent a slate of fake Trump electors to Washington, D.C., after the real electoral votes for Biden were already cast in the 2020 election. Johnson tried, unsuccessfully, to hand them off to Vice President Mike Pence.

But even worse than the both-sides-ism of conventional media analysis, which seems to have missed the fact that one side is pursuing violence and trying to overturn an election, are Democrats like Representative Tim Ryan, of Ohio, who is running against pro-Trump Republican J.D. Vance for that state's open U.S. Senate seat. Ryan attacked Biden's student debt relief recently, saying that "waiving debt for those already on a trajectory to financial security sends the wrong message to the millions of Ohioans without a degree working just as hard to make ends meet."

That's nonsense. Ryan is simply parroting the Republicans' false claims that student debt relief is a burden for blue-collar workers. Republicans—who want to bust unions and cut Social Security and Medicare, and who have been unwilling to lift a finger to help a generation struggling with student debt—are still pretending to champion the working class against liberal elitists. Centrist Democrats should be calling them out.

Biden's loan forgiveness provisions will disproportionately help low- and moderate-income people: 75 percent of the debt cancellation help will go to households with annual incomes below $88,000. They will cut in half the payments for eligible lower- and middle-income borrowers, from 10 percent of their earnings to 5 percent, and are particularly focused on helping Pell Grant recipients, who by definition are low-income borrowers.

For younger voters, whom Democrats worry are not enthusiastic about Biden, this is a major change worth getting excited about. Biden has taken a very significant step toward alleviating a crisis for more than forty-three million borrowers, whose pursuit of a college degree has left them mired in debt.

On this issue and so many others, Democrats should go on the offensive. After all, as Biden put it, Trump and MAGA Republicans have "turned this country into a battlefield," fanning the flames of racism and hate and selling division instead of unity and a vision of progress and hope.

"Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be?" Biden asked during his first campaign against Trump. "Is this what we pass on to our kids' and grandkids' lives? Fear and finger-pointing rather than hope and the pursuit of happiness? Incompetence and anxiety? Self-absorption and selfishness?"

Those are still important questions. And despite Trump's Big Lie that he won the 2020 election, a majority of voters chose Biden's better vision for the future. To a remarkable degree, he has delivered on that vision, even faced with the opposition of Republicans and centrist Democratic Senators Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona.

Two years later, with the midterm elections upon us, Biden points out, "There's no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans. And that is a threat to this country."

The worst of that threat is coming from Republicans, who want to roll back voting rights and interfere in the administration of elections so they can tinker with the results. Democrats have been playing with fire, too, however, by pouring millions of dollars into ultra-MAGA primary candidates, thinking they will be easier to beat—an effort designed to foster voter cynicism that is poisonous to democracy. Instead, we badly need our team to pull together. The stakes could not be higher. 

© 2021 The Progressive
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. Se moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump.

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