Joe Biden is universally perceived as a moderate Democrat. He is moderate enough that some prominent Republicans, such as four-star general Colin Powell and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, are voting for him. He is moderate enough that some strong Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are reluctantly supporting him. He is so moderate that even President Donald Trump, no stranger to making spurious claims about opponents, has largely stopped trying to paint Biden as a radical leftist.
Biden has certainly leaned into the moderate aspect of his public image, reassuring wealthy donors at Manhattan’s Carlyle Hotel in June 2019 that “nothing will fundamentally change” under his presidency and wishing Trump a speedy recovery over Twitter after the president’s COVID-19 diagnosis. But how moderate is Biden really? His $1.7 trillion climate plan, which focuses 40% of its spending on marginalized communities affected by environmental degradation, is nearly as comprehensive as Ocasio-Cortez’s wide-ranging plan for environmental measures, which shares the moniker of “Green New Deal” with Biden’s plans even though they are not the same. The climate plan is just one part of a $7 trillion slate of economic recovery measures, 10 times larger than the economic stimulus Barack Obama passed during the 2009 recession. He also endorses a public option for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a provision originally defeated by Senate Democrats when the ACA was voted on in 2009. His policies indicate that he is certainly to the left of Hillary Clinton, probably to the left of Obama and arguably the furthest-left presidential nominee, relative to the national political climate, in decades.
Not that anyone would get that impression from listening to Biden. The former vice president is perfectly comfortable with his image as the United States’ affable, bipartisan Uncle Joe. Paradoxically, this might be precisely why a Biden presidency would constitute a major leftward shift.
Imagine the presidency of someone like Sen. Bernie Sanders. After having openly campaigned on themes of dismantling the status quo, economic radicalism and contempt for elites, Sanders would find it difficult to advance his agenda on Capitol Hill. In a best-case scenario, to win votes he would have to resort to compromises that would weaken the impact of his reforms. More likely, though, Republicans and centrist Democrats would form an organized resistance blocking Sanders’ plans. By tying down-ballot Democrats to Sanders’ divisive rhetoric, Republicans would swiftly take back Congress, and a reactionary Republican president elected in 2024 would undo all of Sanders’ advancements, if any managed to pass in the first place.
Now consider Biden. Despite all of his faults, he is a shrewd politician. Biden recognizes the need for reform in the United States, the type that Sanders and company are calling for. But he also knows that it is all too easy to be tarred as a socialist by Republicans. So, he gingerly steps over the hot-button issues, while otherwise supporting progressive policies. His climate plans will be the widest-ranging series of actions the United States has ever taken on the environment, but while his campaign website refers to these plans as a “Green New Deal,” he does not endorse the more controversial environmental plan by that name created by Ocasio-Cortez, which has gotten criticism from the right and the center for being too vague and ambitious. Biden does not intend to immediately ban fracking, which would put a proverbial target on his chest in right-leaning, oil-rich states. Nonetheless, he will work toward a carbon-neutral economy by 2050, ahead of the goals set by China and Japan and in line with the European Union’s goal. Specifically endorsing “Medicare for All” would make headlines and polarize voters, so Biden embraces the similar, but less controversial, public option, where a universally available government-provided healthcare option competes with private healthcare plans. In short, Biden has managed to be radical without seeming radical.
Regardless of how adept a president is at crossing the aisle, it is unlikely that Senate Republicans will support any Democratic policies. However, with the blandly likable Biden at the top of the ticket, Democrats are speeding toward a potentially historic Senate majority, with an eight in 10 chance of flipping as many as eight seats according to the widely trusted polling website FiveThirtyEight. Winning over Republicans may be unnecessary. A more openly left-wing presidential nominee would endanger down-ballot candidates, as well as provoking a conservative backlash that could long outlast the candidate it was a reaction against, delaying progress by decades. By publicly preaching bipartisanship and a return to normalcy, but tacitly supporting progressive ideals, Biden is letting further-left policies slowly yet steadily enter the mainstream, helping change come faster.
This article presents opinions held by the author, not those of The Pioneer Log and its editorial board.