Lawrence Mishel, a well-known labor economist, has been a critic of centrist Democrats for decades. “My adult lifetime has covered the Carter, Clinton and Obama years, and labor policy has never been a priority,” Mishel, the former president of the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, told me. In the 2016 primary, he voted for Bernie Sanders. This year he supported Elizabeth Warren. (So did I.)
But when Mishel saw Joe Biden’s labor policy, he was thrilled. “I think that if you had asked me in 2016 whether we would ever see an agenda like this, this is beyond my hopes,” he said.
Biden’s proposals go far beyond his call for a $15 federal minimum wage — a demand some saw as radical when Sanders pushed it four years ago. While it’s illegal for companies to fire employees for trying to organize a union, the penalties are toothless. Biden proposes to make those penalties bite and to hold executives personally liable. He would follow California in cracking down on companies like Uber that misclassify full-time workers as independent contractors who aren’t entitled to benefits. He’d extend federal labor protections to farmworkers and domestic workers.
Mishel said that no Democratic nominee in his lifetime has presented “as robust and fleshed out a policy suite on labor standards and unions.”
The anticlimactic end of the Democratic primary has left many progressives depressed, if not despairing. Instead of a fresh face or a revolutionary, the party has chosen a man who seems to embody the status quo, at least as it existed before Donald Trump. Yet should Biden become president, progressives have the opportunity to make generational gains.
Biden has always positioned himself at the center of the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party has moved left. To try to unite the party around him, he’s making serious progressive commitments.
And contrary to conventional wisdom, most politicians attempt to keep their campaign promises. Writing in The Washington Monthly in 2012, the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein surveyed the research on campaign pledges. Presidents, he wrote, “usually try to enact the policies they advocate during the campaign. So if you want to know what Mitt Romney or the rest of the Republican crowd would do in 2013 if elected, the best way to find out is to listen to what they are saying right now.”
Trump, in some ways, is the ultimate example of this. In 2016, many social conservatives were understandably skeptical that a thrice-married sybarite and longtime supporter of abortion rights really shared their priorities. But personal impiety aside, Trump understood the political necessity of keeping his base happy, so his administration has given free rein to theocrats.
Biden wouldn’t need to pivot so dramatically to be a transformative progressive president. There are plenty of bleak moments in his record, including his treatment of Anita Hill and his Iraq war vote, but it’s not quite as reactionary as leftists sometimes imagine. Among other things, he’s long been better-than-average on unions; as Jared Bernstein, Biden’s former chief economist, told me, “One of the main things that differentiates Biden from a traditional mainstream Democrat is his understanding of the importance of worker power.”
Still, it’s clear that he’s moving leftward. Biden recently came out for tuition-free college for students whose families earn less than $125,000. He endorsed Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy plan, something that would have been unimaginable in 2005, when Warren, then a Harvard law professor, charged onto the public stage to fight a regressive bankruptcy bill that Biden supported.
After long supporting the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for most abortions, Biden gave in to pro-choice pressure to come out against it. His climate plan already went beyond any of Barack Obama’s initiatives, and he’s pledged to make it even more robust. Biden’s health care proposal falls far short of single-payer, but it is, as Paul Waldman wrote in The Washington Post, “surprisingly liberal.”
It will be in Biden’s political interests to try to make good on these commitments. “I’ve worked with him for a while now,” said Jared Bernstein. “He really believes you achieve political success by either doing what you’ve promised to do or getting caught trying like hell.”
In the 20th century, the two presidents with the most substantive records of progressive accomplishment were Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Liberals nearly revolted on the Democratic convention floor when John F. Kennedy, looking to placate Southern voters, chose Johnson, but he ended up doing far more for liberalism than Kennedy did.
Roosevelt’s future greatness wasn’t obvious to all when he first ran for president. Sounding some of the same notes as Biden’s critics today, the famous political columnist Walter Lippmann wrote: “He is no tribune of the people. He is no enemy of entrenched privilege. He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president.”
It may be too much to hope that Biden could equal the achievements of Roosevelt or Johnson. But should he become president, he will, like both of them, inherit a country deep in crisis, where once inconceivable political interventions suddenly appear possible. We can’t know whether he will rise to the opportunity — only that presidencies are shaped by far more than the ideology of the person who achieves the office.