“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.
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.