Joe Biden and Kamala Harris walking
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris walking

“If his­to­ry repeats itself, and the unex­pect­ed always hap­pens, how inca­pable must Man be of learn­ing from expe­ri­ence,” the cel­e­brat­ed Irish play­wright and polit­i­cal activist George Bernard Shaw wrote a lit­tle more than a cen­tu­ry ago.

At this incred­i­bly fraught and per­ilous moment in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, we don’t just need steady, com­pas­sion­ate gov­er­nance — we need savvy, capa­ble lead­er­ship with a respect and appre­ci­a­tion for his­to­ry and a will­ing­ness to learn from it.

For­tu­nate­ly, the tran­si­tion work done by our next Pres­i­dent and Vice Pres­i­dent dur­ing the past few weeks sug­gests that they will be enter­ing office mind­ful of the risk of unforced polit­i­cal errors and leg­isla­tive malpractice.

The last time Democ­rats had a tri­fec­ta at the fed­er­al lev­el (con­trol of the White House, U.S. House, and Sen­ate) at the begin­ning of Barack Oba­ma’s pres­i­den­cy in 2009, the coun­try was in the throes of anoth­er cri­sis — the Great Recession.

Though Oba­ma’s team was able to sta­bi­lize the econ­o­my, res­cue the auto indus­try, and low­er unem­ploy­ment, they were not able to facil­i­tate an inclu­sive recov­ery, or posi­tion the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty for a suc­cess­ful midterm elec­tion cycle. We’re still liv­ing with the con­se­quences of their mis­steps over a decade later.

There is much to like and admire about Barack Oba­ma. There were many pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy advances dur­ing his pres­i­den­cy. But any fair appraisal of his tenure has to con­sid­er his mis­takes and fail­ures as well as his successes.

Espe­cial­ly in times of cri­sis, a new admin­is­tra­tion’s ear­ly deci­sions are extreme­ly con­se­quen­tial. That’s why it’s so reas­sur­ing to see Biden and Har­ris mak­ing moves that will keep our coun­try and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty out of some of the traps the Oba­ma team fell into back in 2009. Here’s a few exam­ples of what I mean.

The American Rescue Plan

Joe Biden’s ini­tial sig­na­ture leg­isla­tive pro­pos­al is called the Amer­i­can Res­cue Plan. It’s a near­ly $2 tril­lion eco­nom­ic relief pack­age that would pro­vide direct finan­cial assis­tance to mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, raise the min­i­mum wage, fund nation­wide vac­ci­na­tion pro­grams, and help strug­gling small businesses.

Amer­i­can Res­cue Plan Fact Sheet

The pro­pos­al is more than twice as big as Pres­i­dent Oba­ma’s ini­tial sig­na­ture leg­isla­tive pro­pos­al in 2009 — the Amer­i­can Recov­ery and Rein­vest­ment Act (ARRA), which was only about $831 bil­lion in size.

ARRA was good leg­is­la­tion, but it was­n’t near­ly as big as it should have been, which lim­it­ed its poten­cy and effec­tive­ness. A cri­sis is a ter­ri­ble thing to waste, and it would make absolute­ly no sense for Biden-Har­ris to pro­pose a small or medi­um scale relief pack­age at the out­set of their admin­is­tra­tion. They need to go big — as big as they pos­si­bly can. In fact, we’d love to see the scope of this pro­pos­al increased even fur­ther, with more aid for state and local governments.

The greater the invest­ment, the more fis­cal­ly respon­si­ble the pack­age will be, even if the invest­ments are not paid for with new tax rev­enue. When your house is burn­ing down, you don’t wor­ry about the cost of putting out the fire — you focus on putting out the fire. That’s exact­ly what we need to be doing right now. Kudos to Biden and Har­ris for propos­ing a plan that is much big­ger in scope than ARRA was. Con­gress should expand it even fur­ther, not water it down.

The Amer­i­can Res­cue Plan is also a great name for the pack­age. It’s mem­o­rable and easy to say, and it prop­er­ly invokes pro­gres­sive framing.

George Lakoff would be proud.

The Democratic National Committee

The best known arm of the nation­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee, or DNC, which does­n’t have the breadth of pow­er its most tren­chant crit­ics seem to think it does, but is nev­er­the­less important.

The DNC has an unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic, unwrit­ten tra­di­tion of let­ting incum­bent Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­dents (or, more accu­rate­ly, their polit­i­cal advis­ers) decide who should serve as DNC Chair when the par­ty holds the White House, and then sim­ply installing that per­son with­out com­pet­i­tive elections.

Oba­ma’s team used that pow­er bad­ly. They weak­ened the DNC in two huge ways.

First, rather than invest­ing in the par­ty, they set up a com­pet­ing, inef­fec­tive polit­i­cal appa­ra­tus called Orga­niz­ing For Amer­i­ca, or OFA, which was sup­posed to be the suc­ces­sor to the ground­break­ing Oba­ma cam­paign that lift­ed Oba­ma to vic­to­ry in 2008. After Oba­ma’s suc­cess­ful reelec­tion in 2012, OFA began to with­er on the vine along with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. It nev­er became a polit­i­cal force.

Sec­ond, they repeat­ed­ly installed as DNC Chair elect­ed offi­cials who could not give the par­ty and the job their undi­vid­ed atten­tion and loyalty.

Their first pick was then-Gov­er­nor Tim Kaine of Vir­ginia, who had sen­a­to­r­i­al ambi­tions and ulti­mate­ly stepped down from his posi­tion to pur­sue those ambi­tions. Their sec­ond pick was Deb­bie Wasser­man Schultz, who arguably turned out to be the most dis­as­trous DNC Chair the par­ty had ever seen. (After Wasser­man Schultz was picked, I wrote a post here express­ing my con­cerns about her selec­tion, which end­ed up being entire­ly justified.)

Rather than pick­ing a gov­er­nor or mem­ber of Con­gress to head the DNC, Biden’s team has nom­i­nat­ed Jaime Har­ri­son, who is avail­able for par­ty­build­ing fol­low­ing his loss in the South Car­oli­na U.S. Sen­ate race to Trump apol­o­gist Lind­sey Gra­ham, who once denounced Trump and now can­not quit him.

Since Har­ri­son isn’t an elect­ed offi­cial, he will be able to focus full time on build­ing a strong DNC. His selec­tion has been hailed by state par­ty chairs all over the coun­try, who are thrilled at the prospect of a strong part­ner at the DNC.

With Har­ri­son as chair, the par­ty will be bet­ter posi­tioned to avoid a repeat of the hor­rif­ic 2010 midterms, when Repub­li­cans wiped out the Demo­c­ra­t­ic U.S. House major­i­ty and took over gov­er­nor­ships and state­hous­es across the country.

Biden’s team is also plan­ning to invest in the par­ty at all lev­els as opposed to attempt­ing to build a sep­a­rate polit­i­cal oper­a­tion, which is real­ly, real­ly smart.

Personnel is policy: Promising nominees for key positions

Twelve years ago, Barack Oba­ma dis­ap­point­ed many of his strongest sup­port­ers when he named wrong­head­ed neolib­er­als like Rahm Emanuel, Lar­ry Sum­mers, and Tim Gei­th­n­er to key posi­tions with­in his administration.

Biden (and Har­ris) appear to have tak­en note. They’ve assem­bled a more promis­ing eco­nom­ic and reg­u­la­to­ry team for their administration.

Here are some of their key nominees:

  • Janet Yellen, Sec­re­tary of the Trea­sury. The for­mer Fed Chair has a good rep­u­ta­tion among pro­gres­sive law­mak­ers and is also wide­ly respect­ed across the polit­i­cal spec­trum. Yellen is extreme­ly smart and very savvy, and under­stands the need to build a more inclu­sive economy.
  • Gary Gensler, SEC Chair. The hard-charg­ing Gensler believes in going tough on Wall Street, which is great news for the coun­try. Dur­ing the Oba­ma years, Gensler was a leader in push­ing for tough rules on deriv­a­tives. Now, he’ll be in a prime posi­tion to crack down on cor­po­rate abus­es that went unad­dressed dur­ing the Trump error.
  • Rohit Chopra, CFPB Direc­tor. Chopra is Biden’s choice to head the Con­sumer Finan­cial Pro­tec­tion Bureau, the fed­er­al agency cre­at­ed by Eliz­a­beth War­ren to safe­guard Amer­i­cans and their wal­lets against greedy big banks and oth­er unscrupu­lous finan­cial insti­tu­tions. Chopra helped War­ren set up the agency and can be trust­ed to restore its strength.
  • Cecil­ia Rouse, Chair of the Coun­cil of Eco­nom­ic Advis­ers. Rouse, the dean of the Prince­ton School of Pub­lic and Inter­na­tion­al Affairs, is a well regard­ed labor econ­o­mist. She pre­vi­ous­ly served in Oba­ma’s Coun­cil of Eco­nom­ic Advis­ers and is respect­ed by pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions that work on eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty issues. She is expect­ed to have an equi­ty focus.

The Cab­i­net and exec­u­tive team Biden and Har­ris have built are def­i­nite­ly not as pro­gres­sive as the team that Bernie Sanders or Eliz­a­beth War­ren would have built, but this team does lean more to the left than Oba­ma’s, and that’s progress.

The administration’s next moves are just as crucial

Biden and Har­ris will end their tran­si­tion in a strong posi­tion. They’ve cho­sen a record num­ber of nom­i­nees for key posts and will have a more coop­er­a­tive Unit­ed States Sen­ate thanks to the momen­tum-build­ing vic­to­ries in the Geor­gia runoffs only two weeks ago, which end­ed Mitch McConnel­l’s Repub­li­can majority.

How­ev­er, the road ahead is per­ilous. Biden and Har­ris are inher­it­ing a hor­rif­ic pub­lic health emer­gency, a debil­i­tat­ing eco­nom­ic cri­sis, and a dis­in­for­ma­tion-plagued soci­ety from Don­ald Trump and Mike Pence. If that weren’t bad enough, Amer­i­ca’s rela­tion­ships with its allies have been bad­ly dam­aged, and the coun­try’s adver­saries embold­ened. In about every respect, the coun­try is in a weak­er and more frag­ile state than it was four years ago when Barack Oba­ma left office.

Arguably, the biggest mis­take that Barack Oba­ma made in 2009–2010 is one I haven’t men­tioned yet: allow­ing the Bush admin­is­tra­tion and Wall Street to escape account­abil­i­ty for their wrong­do­ing. Oba­ma incor­rect­ly con­clud­ed that the coun­try would be best served by mov­ing on instead of pros­e­cut­ing those respon­si­ble for hor­rif­ic human rights vio­la­tions and eco­nom­ic injustices.

It was­n’t, of course.

Biden and Har­ris must not make that mistake.

Account­abil­i­ty is a pre­req­ui­site for heal­ing. It is a neces­si­ty. Incom­ing Attor­ney Gen­er­al Mer­rick Gar­land must launch a broad, wide rang­ing crim­i­nal probe into the wrong­do­ing com­mit­ted by Don­ald Trump, his fam­i­ly, and his associates.

The peo­ple involved in the loot­ing and plun­der­ing of this coun­try dur­ing the last four years must be brought to jus­tice. That includes Trump’s Repub­li­can enablers in Con­gress, like Andy Big­gs, Mo Brooks, Josh Haw­ley and Ted Cruz.

His­to­ry tells us that appease­ment does­n’t work against neo­fas­cists and bul­lies. They must be con­front­ed. They must be fought. We have no objec­tion to Joe Biden’s calls for uni­ty and heal­ing, but we can only have uni­ty and heal­ing if we deal with the grave threat to our democ­ra­cy and our future that’s in front of us.

Can Joe Biden and Kamala Har­ris rise to the chal­lenge? We have faith they can. We’ll be doing our part to encour­age them to gov­ern pro­gres­sive­ly and wisely.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

Adjacent posts

One reply on “Incoming Biden-Harris team signals it will avoid repeating many of Obama’s missteps”

  1. Every pres­i­dent since Clin­ton in ’94, has lost his par­ty’s major­i­ty in Con­gress. Speak­er Of the House has essen­tial­ly become a “temp’ job.

Comments are closed.