When Joe Biden orchestrated one of the most astonishing turnarounds in American electoral history earlier this year, progressive Democrats dealt with it in a variety of sometimes overlapping stages: shock, broken-heartedness, and downright fear. Though it’s been diminishing, slowly at first and more recently quite rapidly, one can still find on the social media feeds of Bernie Sanders supporters the forlorn shouts of injustice and Biden comeuppance. By and large this is understandable.
However, the question now for progressives is whether we can expect Joe Biden to govern in an acceptably enlightened way (contingent upon his being elected of course). It’s not about the fact that Biden is better than Trump, even in a Sanders voter’s deepest moments of despair they know internally that he is. But, beyond the fact that Biden is more progressive than Donald Trump, there are specific reasons to take heart in the notion that he may govern more progressively than we’d believe at first blush. American political history itself, and the tremendous appointment-making power granted to the President of the United States serve to give us hope.
There are an abundance of historical examples of Democratic presidents exceeding low expectations on the progressive policy front, both contemporaneously and as we view them from our perch looking back at history. Prior to the presidency several future White House occupants hardly laid out the red carpet for a liberal panacea. As it turns out, there’s actually quite an historical tendency for Democratic presidents to exceed our expectations on the progressive scorecard.
Who could’ve imagined that a one-time (brief) member of the KKK, hailing from a state who many of its own residents falsely believed joined the Confederacy, would become the first president to address the NAACP? Much less be the person who ordered the integration of the United States Armed Forces?
John F. Kennedy, overly cautious during the first two years of his administration, in part due to his razor-thin margin of victory in 1960 and the domination of Congress by southern segregationists, took decisive progressive steps in his last year in the White House. Labeling civil rights “a moral issue” he put the full weight of the presidency behind civil rights in 1963, rhetorically and legislatively. Along the way he signed the Equal Pay Act, supported Medicare, and laid the groundwork for the War on Poverty.
Who expected that someone from rural Texas, who’d built his Senate career on compromise, and had a less-than-enlightened personal history on matters dealing with race, would become a champion of civil and voting rights for Black Americans? In the meantime Lyndon Johnson’s administration created college funding as we know it, Head Start, WIC, passed Medicare & Medicaid, and was in many ways the last administration to give urban areas the focus and support they need. (Unfortunately this last fact has led to the outsized influence of rural America in political society today).
More recently, Barack Obama was hardly heralded as the voice for health care reform during the 2008 Democratic primaries. Running against the face of ’90s-era health care reform in Hillary Clinton, he couldn’t compete on that issue against the person most associated with it. Yet it was Obama who created and signed the most far-reaching health care overhaul in history. And did it practically out of the gate of his administration.
I’m skipping over, but could also include, Republicans like Richard Nixon on the environment and health care, as well as Gerald Ford’s support for the ERA, as evidence of unexpected progressivism. Today’s Republican Party would intrinsically reject anything progressive. Including a progressive humanity. So much so that someone like Ronald Reagan would hardly fit within Trump’s Republican party.
Joe Biden does not have the eloquence or panache of John F. Kennedy. He won’t have the tragic wave of sympathy LBJ masterly used in the first year of his presidency. Nor the uncanny ability to explain the importance of even the most mundane minutiae as Bill Clinton could. And, he doesn’t share the soaring rhetorical style of Barack Obama. But these factors don’t inherently prevent a Biden administration from making bold moves on issues likes immigration or gun control.
Beyond the historical record of past presidents, there are other reasons to believe that Joe Biden could move progressive policies forward into legislation. For additional background on candidate Biden, govtrack.us depicts where he stood ideologically in his last six years in the Senate as you can see in the graphic below.
Despite much of the media generalities, Biden was no conservative Democrat. Indeed, the man with this voting record, and who announced the Obama administration’s policy shift in favor of gay marriage for example, could surprise progressive Democrats if elected.
So while Biden himself could make progressive strides for the country, it will be his appointment-making powers where the greatest and most enduring impact could be witnessed. While appointments don’t have the cache of one powerful figure thundering pronouncements forth from behind the Resolute desk, nor do they evince the emotionalism of electioneering racehorses, but there are over 850 federal judges within the federal judicial system. And oh by the way, Trump is poised to appoint his 200th judge any day now. With Biden in the in the White House instead of Trump, more progressive sympathizers will be in control on the bench.
It should be noted that in the 230 years of the office of the presidency, only one president who has served a full term did NOT appoint at least 1 Justice to the U.S. Supreme Court (Jimmy Carter for the record).
And whilst the Supreme Court gets the lion’s share of attention, there is an expansive federal judicial system in the United States, the totality of which exceeds the importance of the High Court. 2,122 federal judges have been appointed since the beginning of the aforementioned Carter’s presidency in 1977; meaning each president has appointed an average of 303 federal judges. Judges who serve for LIFE. Even one-term presidents like Carter and George H.W. Bush, and hopefully Trump, have averaged 230 federal judicial appointments. Judges who will weigh-in on voting rights, minimum wage laws, union protections, reproductive rights, campaign finance reform, discrimination, equitable education policies, police misconduct, etc., etc.
Additionally, the 15 Cabinet members who devise and enact policies, and their subordinates, will all be Biden appointees. So, people like Betsy DeVos, and the Attorney General whose politicization of the Justice Department would make even John Mitchell squirm, will be gone.
So whether it’s reducing student debt obligations, recommitting America to long-term environmental standards, immigration reform, or a host of other issues, Biden presents not just the better of two evils, but a potential game-changer. And, after 40+ years in public office, we certainly know Joe Biden won’t be lying every single day, view the presidency primarily as a means to enhance his family’s personal wealth, nor empowering racists to foment nationalistic division. In a moment of remarkable self-reflection and foresight, Biden earlier this year remarked that he was the bridge to the next generation of presidential Democrats. We haven’t reached the progressive panacea yet and the pressure must be kept on Biden, but we might just get there sooner if Joe Biden defeats Donald Trump.