JOE BIDEN won by promising less. Vocal factions in the Democratic Party and beyond saw Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat as evidence that Americans were hungry for something bold and transformative from the left. But the former vice-president made a more modest bet in 2020: that people mostly wanted Donald Trump’s presidency to be over and more competent response to the pandemic.
It paid off. And to the surprise of many voters and activists who had lowered their expectations, the president has shown flashes of bold vision in office, signing a big stimulus package praised by Bernie Sanders himself as “the single most significant piece of legislation for working-class people that has been passed since the 1960s.” The decline in poverty rates that his American Rescue Plan has helped accelerate—across racial groups but for Black people especially—may be temporary, but it indicates the profound impact his agenda can have at its best. Biden and his party are on the cusp of passing a $3.5 trillion omnibus package that would flush an unusually large amount of resources toward expanding access to health care and education and fighting climate change.
Yet this wave of legislation is still tethered to Biden’s original proposition: Pushing for less than what America’s crises demand is the price that has to be paid for victory and hence any chance at progress at all. So instead of universal health care, tinkering with the Affordable Care Act so more people have coverage. Instead of a Green New Deal, a commitment to reducing carbon emissions by half within a decade, which experts say is insufficient.
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