Reasons for optimism? President Biden’s first month

Considering what we might have expected from his long and often troubling record in government, Biden’s tone and actions so far should give American progressives some reason for cautious optimism during this very difficult time.

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After almost two trillion dollars in tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations that again failed to trickle down to working people as promised, a nativist approach to economic and foreign policy that alienated the United States from much of the world and the almost year long train wreck of the Trump Administration’s response to the emergency provoked by the novel coronavirus, President Joe Biden entered office facing a series of overlapping crises unique in his country’s history.

As of February 11th, the new president had already signed 50 executive orders (17 on his first day alone), 19 of which were direct reversals of those brought into force by his predecessor. Although the use of such orders has gone up with each new administration this century due to seemingly permanent gridlock in the country’s legislative branch, many commentators are calling the sheer number of them and related memorandums by the current president unprecedented.

Still, the current president has some way to go to match former President Trump, who created 220 of them over his four years in office, often demonstrating a seemingly juvenile relish in destroying his predecessor’s legacy at home and abroad.

Even if one believes the short lived opening up to Cuba was a mistake or had criticisms of the Iran nuclear deal, both among the few real diplomatic accomplishments of the Obama Administration from a progressive perspective, when a country as influential as the United States doesn’t live up to its agreements this not only makes any serious good faith negotiations with rival nations unlikely, it can also encourage similar behavior by more authoritarian countries.

The Trump orders that Biden has reversed included some of the most cruel and racist acts of his time as president, including the one that banned or placed other restrictions on travel to the U.S. by individuals from 13 poorer, mainly Muslim majority nations. Another reestablishes the right of transgender people to serve in the U.S. military, although the anti-militarist in me is still bothered by the use of this institution as a vehicle for social change.

In response to the latter order, incoming Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “The United States Armed Forces are in the business of defending our fellow citizens from our enemies, foreign and domestic. I believe we accomplish that mission more effectively when we represent all our fellow citizens.”

President Biden also stopped funding for the previous president’s impractical and environmentally destructive border wall and acted to prevent the United States from leaving the World Health Organization during a global pandemic which, flawed as that organization may be, requires coordination between nations and the sharing of information on an almost unheard of scale.

While legislation that establishes most of these things would be harder to reverse by some future Republican administration, as previously mentioned, even with a super majority in the country’s government, the legislative route is still difficult for Democrats. This is in part due to the fact that so many in the party itself are willing to jettison popular progressive priorities in the name of ‘moderation’.

Even on an issue as widely popular as the fight for a federal $15 an hour minimum wage, which would be phased in over 4 years and is included in the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, Democratic centrists in the Senate, most notably Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, may help the opposition deny Biden the chance to fulfill a campaign promise that generated excitement among progressives and the activists who have tirelessly pushed the issue into the spotlight.

While it seems likely that this increase will be sacrificed in the name of getting Americans the relief so many desperately need in this time of crisis, as reported by Newsweek, Democrats in the House of Representatives are already looking at other means to make the minimum wage hike a reality.

The most promising is an earlier bill, House Resolution 603. A separate bill based on a $15 minimum wage alone, passed under the process of reconciliation (denying Republicans the use of the filibuster) might make it more difficult for Democratic moderates to publicly reject it.

Washington Democratic Senator Patty Murray released a statement in support of Resolution 603 that should inform her party’s messaging in regards to this issue, “Throughout this pandemic, Democrats and Republicans alike have joined together in rightly calling our frontline workers ‘heroes.’ But despite their tireless work and the risk of COVID exposure, too many of these workers are paid wages so low, they can’t afford to pay for even their most basic needs. And because of systemic inequities and discrimination, workers of color, and in particular, women of color, are much more likely to be paid poverty-level wages.”

The only times we see the kind of ‘bipartisanship’ so often extolled by centrist Democrats, including the current president, is in intervening in and sanctioning other countries and aiding big donor interests like defense contractors, whose wishes are always a priority for the leadership of both of America’s major political parties.

As Senator Murray’s statement made clear, a $15 minimum hourly wage is a good place to start in addressing issues of not only class but of racial and gender inequality. Along similar lines, the new president signed four other executive orders related to racial equity on January 24th h including a promise not to renew federal prison contracts with for profit companies like the Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group. This order, important as it is, doesn’t cover the use of private facilities by other agencies like ICE to hold asylum seekers and refugees.

The new president also signed a memorandum calling on the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to look at a 2020 rule named “Preserving Community and Neighborhood Choice” (which seems to mean the opposite of what the name implies) and changes the previous administration made to the rules regarding fair housing practices.

While signing the orders, President Biden said, “We need to make the issue of racial equity not just an issue for any one department of government; it has to be the business of the whole of government.”

One area where the new president seems to be in sync with much of his party’s base is in taking action on the issue of climate change. Besides bringing the country back into the Paris Climate Accord, the new president has signed orders reversing Trump era rules allowing oil and gas companies access to federal land and waters and canceling the Keystone XL pipeline, revived by his predecessor after being blocked by Biden’s old boss, former President Obama.

Another order made by Biden ending some of the taxpayer funded subsidies for the fossil fuel production could have a serious impact on the profitability of some sectors of the industry like shale oil.

Mike Sommers, who is president of the American Petroleum Institute made the industry’s willingness to fight these orders using the courts clear in a speech he made a short time after the new president took office,“We pledged to work with (Biden’s) administration when we can and oppose when we must. Only eight days into his term, it is disappointing to report that we find ourselves in a posture of strong opposition. But we have no choice.”

Going forward, there will be many things to criticize about a Biden presidency, and, in terms of foreign policy and some of his picks in terms of personnel in that area, there already are. Nonetheless, considering what we might have expected from his long and often troubling record in government, Biden’s tone and actions so far should give American progressives some reason for cautious optimism during this very difficult time.

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