Biden shores up domestic defences for global push
By Steve Howell
Donald Trump was fond of calling his Democrat opponent ‘sleepy Joe’ but the first three months of Joe Biden’s presidency have been anything but lethargic.
Since his inauguration in January in a Washington patrolled by 20,000 troops and looking like a war zone, president Biden has set about re-engineering US strategy domestically and internationally with astonishing speed and zeal. For the US establishment, a revamp was undoubtedly much needed. Globally, the USA’s pre-eminence is under threat from China’s relentless economic growth, the drain on its resources from the ‘forever wars’, the European Union’s increasing propensity to act unilaterally and the growing climate change crisis. Domestically, Biden faces a batch of potentially destabilising issues, including the world’s third worst COVID-19 death rate, an upsurge in white supremacist activity and deepening economic inequality, accelerated by Trump’s regressive tax cuts.
The energy with which the White House has begun to tackle these challenges is not, of course, the doing of its elderly occupant. Biden is merely the front man for a ready-made team drawn from the Washington political elite, most of whom have served in previous Democrat administrations. Foremost among them are secretary of state Anthony Blinken, who was Hillary Clinton’s deputy under Obama, and Treasury secretary Janet Yellen, who chaired president Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers and was appointed by Barack Obama as chair of the Federal Reserve. Biden’s selection of a cabinet packed with veteran centrists appeared to confirm fears on the left that he meant what he said when he promised rich donors early in his presidential campaign that ‘nothing will fundamentally change’. But, confronted by so many problems, centrists have realised that some things have to change – after all, an elite that is unable to sustain hegemony internally is in no position to defend it internationally.
RESPONSE TO DOMESTIC THREATS
Concern in Washington circles about the threats facing capitalism is reflected in a warning from the International Monetary Fund in April that the exacerbation of inequalities by Covid-19 may lead to “polarization, erosion of trust in government or social unrest” and “pose risks to macroeconomic stability and the functioning of society.” (1) Those concerns have shaped much of Biden’s early agenda and rhetoric. He frequently says “Wall Street didn’t build America” and that he will deliver “shots in arms, money in pockets”. And the money has indeed come thick and fast: under the £1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, 127 million people had by the end of March been sent cheques – typically $1,400 per person - and billions had been allocated to prevent home repossessions, evictions, small business failures and public sector job cuts. (2) That was followed by the announcement of a longer term $3 trillion American Jobs Plan that will renew the country’s electricity grid and water system, pay for new buses and rolling stock, modernise 20,000 miles of highways, invest in schools and hospitals, retrofit two million homes to make them energy efficient and connect everyone to high-speed broadband. (3)
The sums are eye-watering but progressive members of Congress such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are arguing for a much more ambitious $10 trillion, ten-year plan, saying: “We need to understand we are in a devastating economic moment, millions of people are without jobs, we have a truly crippled healthcare system and a planetary crisis on our hands, and we are the wealthiest country in the history of the world.” (4)
However, one point on which there is no disagreement between the left and the White House is on the need for jobs to be unionised. Biden surprised and alarmed big business by including in his jobs plan a commitment to “ensuring workers have a free and fair choice to organize, join a union, and bargain collectively with their employers” and that “American taxpayers’ dollars benefit working families and their communities, and not multinational corporations or foreign governments.” (5) Union-backed legislation to protect the right to organise was adopted by 225 to 206 in the House of Representatives in March, but it is unlikely to get through the Senate, where the Democrats rely on the casting vote of vice-president Kamala Harris and Republicans are certain to use the filibuster (6), which requires a 60:40 vote to over-turn.
By making the right to organise integral to his jobs plan, Biden could get around that problem because budgetary measures go through what’s known as a reconciliation process that has a 20-hour limit to the filibuster. A similar move to include a $15 minimum wage in the rescue plan fell foul of a legal ruling that it wasn’t strictly a budgetary matter, and therefore would be subject to the filibuster, but the left argue that Harris could have challenged that and will no doubt push hard next time for union rights not to be dropped.
Biden’s other high-profile piece of legislation, the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, was passed by 220 to 212 in the House but is not in a spending plan and is likely to run into a brick wall in the Senate. As it stands, it would ban the use of chokeholds, remove "qualified immunity" for law enforcement officials, scrap ‘no-knock’ warrants, mandate data collection on police encounters, prohibit racial and religious profiling and redirect funding to community-based policing programs.
This piece of domestic legislation, above all the others, highlights a virtually intractable problem facing those in US ruling circles who want to stabilise the country socially and politically: they are up against resistance from a large portion of their own class who can block change not only in the Senate but also through their dominance of the judiciary and much of the coercive structure of the state. The US locks up far more people per capita than any other country in the world. The 2.3 million held in more than 7,000 prisons and detention facilities equate to 698 per 100,000 of the population, well ahead of other comparable countries such as Russia (413), Brazil (325) and England/Wales (141). (7) Of those incarcerated in the US, 40% are African Americans – three times more than their proportion of the population.
Against this background, it’s not surprising that high-profile incidents like the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year have become symbols of systemic racism and a catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement. But in many US police forces far right attitudes are deeply rooted. The Fraternal Order of Police, with 355,000 members, endorsed Trump. Their statement on the storming of the Capitol in January described it as “heart-breaking” but didn’t condemn it outright. Their Chicago president, John Cantanzara, said the protestors were only “voicing frustration” and that he would remain convinced “for the rest of his life” that “something shitty happened in this election”. (8)
The problem with the police is compounded by a judiciary that successive Republican presidents have stacked with conservatives. This means that district courts often act to thwart progressive measures - as has happened recently with moratoriums on evictions and deportations - and to uphold racist voter suppression measures enacted by state legislatures. Biden has a popular mandate for change and those around him appear to understand that a society so poisoned by racism is ultimately doomed, never mind credible as a ‘beacon of democracy’.
A demographic transformation has made the United States a much less cohesive society than it was at the end of the second world war when the country became the brash successor to Britain as the dominant capitalist power globally. Not only has the population more than doubled from 140 million to 330 million, it has also changed radically in its ethnic composition. In 1945, 90 per cent of Americans were white, the rights of non-whites were negligible and desegregation of housing was explicitly considered ‘Un-American’. Today, more than thirty per cent of the much larger population is non-white – nearly 100 million people who, after successive waves of struggle, are not prepared to accept second best. Biden owes his election to the way they turned out in huge numbers for him. He won 15 million more votes than Hillary Clinton to beat Trump clearly by 81 to 74 million in the popular vote. Like Clinton, but on a higher turn-out, he had the support of nine out of ten black voters and two of every three Latinos.
The main difference between 2016 and 2020, apart from the record numbers voting, was the big lead Biden had over Trump among voters on lower incomes. If you convert the New York Times exit poll into votes, more than 64 million of Biden’s 81 million votes came from households with a combined income below $100,000 – that was nearly 17 million more than Trump, compared to a roughly even split in 2016. Among people from households with an income of more than $100,000, whereas in 2016 the votes broke fairly evenly between Clinton and Trump, the 2020 election saw Trump beat Biden by 54% to 43% (or by around five million votes) in that category. In other words, wealthier voters swung to Trump, no doubt pleased with their tax cuts, while Biden secured a staggering increase in support – something like 20 million more votes than Clinton – from less well-off voters. And this must have included a large increase in working class white voters because overall he won 41% of the white vote, compared to Clinton’s 37%.
Further evidence of the Democrats regaining working class support – white and black – can be found in the states Biden won back from Trump. Of the five he flipped, three – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan – were in the de-industrialised ‘rust belt’ where Trump had promised but failed to deliver jobs. In Pennsylvania, for example, the two counties that Biden took from Trump were Northampton, once the home of the giant Bethlehem steelworks, and Erie, another former centre of the steel industry where Trump made three campaign stops, including for one of his final big rallies.
CHALLENGES FOR THE LEFT
The defeat of Trump has opened a new phase in US politics in which the progressive left has opportunities to advance, capitalising on Biden’s need to keep them onside. Whether it can do so depends on how well it can rise to three major challenges.
Firstly, the left will need to continue to build mass pressure for their policy agenda to overcome resistance from the Republicans and backsliding from the centrists around Biden. In January, Sanders warned that the Democrats will lose control of Congress in the midterms next year if they don’t follow what he calls an “aggressive working-class agenda”. Recalling what happened after the victories of Bill Clinton in 1992 and Barack Obama in 2008, he said: “In 1994, Democrats in power lost big because they were not bold. In 2010, it happened again. If we do not take aggressive action now to protect working families, it will happen in 2022.”
The Rescue Plan was the kind of thing he had in mind, but the failure of Biden and Harris to make a real fight for a $15 minimum was warning signal. Former Obama chief of staff and Chicago mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, is among those touting the idea of a compromise with employer lobby groups that would allow states to opt-out of a $15 federal minimum to a floor of $12. (9) Predictably, centrists claim that policies corporate interests oppose are an electoral liability. After the November elections, they tried to blame a handful of Democrat Congressional losses on the left, but Sanders was quick to point out that all 112 co-sponsors of Medicare For All and 97 of 98 co-sponsors of the Green New Deal won their elections. “These are not just good policies, they're also good politics,” he said.
Secondly, uniting the US working class in all its diversity across a huge continent is a herculean task. The Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020, despite not ultimately being successful, lifted the left to a level arguably never seen in the US before. Tens of thousands of people are now active in organisations such as Our Revolution, Justice Democrats and Democratic Socialists of America. The DSA alone now boasts 85,000 members, four members of Congress and 155 elected officials in 32 states. However, when you look closely at the 13 state legislatures on which its members sit, almost all of them are in the north and north east of the US and not in the West, South West and South East where the working class has been growing fastest. (10)
In 1949, my father, Brandon Howell, conducted a demographic study for the state of Nevada in which he projected that the state would see its population grow from 173,800 to 208,800 by 1970. He was way out. By 1970, nearly half a million people lived in the state. Today, Nevada has a population of more than three million, mainly centred on Las Vegas. While states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and New York have seen their populations plateau, there has been phenomenal growth over the last fifty years not only in Nevada but also in states such as Arizona (from 1.7m in 1970 to 7.3m in 2020), Texas (11.2m to 29.4m), Georgia (4.6m to 10.6m) and Florida (6.8m to 21.5m). These so-called sunbelt states have become big political battlegrounds, but they are not places where socialist ideas and working class organisation have strong roots.
FOREIGN POLICY HAWKS
Finally, while there is currently a large overlap between Biden and the left on the domestic front, the same cannot be said of foreign policy. When Blinken was appointed secretary of state, Lord Finkelstein described him in the Times as someone “who continued to support liberal interventionism even when, after the Iraq war, such a position was unpopular among Democrats”. (11) Blinken has recently changed his tune, saying in March that the US will not “promote democracy through costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force” because “however well intentioned” those tactics “haven’t worked.” (12) This apparent U turn is borne largely of necessity: the ‘forever wars’ have cost $6.4 trillion (13) and thousands of US lives and are deeply unpopular. But Blinken also knows that regime change – or regime weakening - can often be achieved through a combination of sanctions, special forces, proxies and drone strikes backed by the occasional bombing raid.
That strategy frees US resources to focus on its main goal of isolating China and Russia and strengthening its grip on maritime global trade. The US can’t do much about the improving transport infrastructure integrating China with central Asia and Russia, but it is looking to encircle that land mass with its vastly superior naval and nuclear might to ensure it calls the shots on sea routes. Blinken is therefore busy whipping NATO countries into line and trying to build up the ‘Quad’ alliance with Japan, India and Australia.
The EU, and especially Germany, is reluctant to be the US’s junior partner in this new Cold War. The EU Commission has agreed a major investment deal with China. The US is opposed to it and it has run into opposition in the European Parliament, but one in every two Volkswagens is sold in China and Merkel’s ministers have made clear that business comes first – a stance that reflects a wider weariness in Europe of its interests being subservient to those of the US, reflected in the new Brussels buzz phrase ‘open strategic autonomy’. As Portugal’s former Europe minister put it recently: “Our ability to chart our own economic policy and choices does not have a ceiling”. (14)
HUMAN RIGHTS HYPOCRISY
But the left and the peace movement – in the US and worldwide - can’t afford to rely on dissension among the major Western powers to prevent a worsening of the new cold war to the point where it tips dangerously into a real one. This is no idle scaremongering. The head of the US Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard, said in an article published in a military journal in January that “there is a real possibility that a regional crisis with Russia or China could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons” and that the US “must shift its principal assumption from ‘nuclear employment is not possible’ to ‘nuclear employment is a very real possibility’ and act to meet and deter that reality”. (15)
Faced with such a stark danger, the left cannot afford to let US hypocrisy on ‘human rights’ go unchallenged. Some in the West – notably including the Murdoch-owned media – are lobbying for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in China next February. Blinken’s spokesperson cryptically encouraged speculation in April by tweeting that “we don’t have any announcement regarding the Beijing Olympics…but we will continue to consult closely with allies and partners to define our common concerns”. (16) US ‘concern’ about the human rights of Muslims in China is a bit rich, to say the least, given how since 2010 it has mounted 14,040 confirmed drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Yemen, killing 8,858-16,901 people of which 910-2,200 were civilians and 283-454 were children. (17) Biden and Blinken were among the architects of this extra-judicial slaughter. They need to be held to account.
Steve Howell is author of Game Changer, the story of Labour’s 2017 election campaign, and two novels, the latest of which, Collateral Damage, was published in April and can be ordered via www.steve-howell.com.
(1) ‘IMF calls for tax hikes on wealthy to reduce income gap’, Guardian, 1.4.21.
(2) ‘FACT SHEET: The American Rescue Plan Will Deliver Immediate Economic Relief to Families’, US Treasury, 18.3.21.
(3) ‘FACT SHEET: The American Jobs Plan’, The White House, 31.3.21.
(4) AOC interview with Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, 1.4.21.
(5) ‘FACT SHEET: The American Jobs Plan’, The White House, 31.3.21.
(6) Filibuster is the tactic of Senators speaking at length until time has run out for debate on a piece of legislation. For more, see: ‘What is the U.S. Senate filibuster and why is everyone talking about it?’ Reuters, 17.3.21.
(7) Source: Prison Policy Initiative. Some states - such as Oklahoma (1,079), Louisiana (1,052), Mississippi (1,039) and Georgia (970) – have staggeringly high levels of incarceration.
(8) Interview with Chip Mitchell, WBEZ Radio, Chicago, 7.1.21.
(9) David Sirota, ‘Rahm Emanuel Headlines Event For Group Fighting $15 Minimum Wage’, Daily Poster, 2.4.21.
(10) According to the DSA website, the 13 state legislatures on which its members serve are: Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Maryland, Minnesota, Hawaii, Montana, and Michigan.
(11) Daniel Finkelstein, ‘What makes Biden’s right hand man tick?’ The Times, 2.12.21.
(12) As reported in the Financial Times, 4.3.21.
(13) ‘America has spent $6.4 trillion on wars in the Middle East and Asia since 2001, a new study says’, CNBC, 20.11.19.
(14) Quoted by Dominic Lawson, ‘Germany, not Brexity Britain, will vex Biden’, Sunday Times, 24.1.21.
(15) As reported in The Times, 4.1.21.
(16) Ned price @StateDeptSpox, 6.4.21.
(17) The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, figures to 10.4.21.