As the election draws closer, we must ask: what will happen over the next four years? We know that Donald Trump’s next four years would mirror the last four. But how would a potential President Joe Biden govern?
Admittedly, nothing is certain. We don’t know if Biden will win or what would happen if he did. However, Biden’s career gives us strong indicators about the kind of president he’d be.
In my view, it’s nothing extraordinary.
The specific moment that convinced me of this was in the final presidential debate. It was when Biden proclaimed support for criminal justice reform. Trump responded by attacking Biden’s inability to “get things done,” as Trump claimed that Biden didn’t accomplish that in his eight years as VP.
Biden’s answer was that there was a Republican Congress that was blocking him and Obama. Trump’s reply (one of his few moments that I liked) was “well you gotta convince them, Joe. You gotta convince them, like I did with the Democrats [with my criminal justice reform].”
Biden’s answer reveals a fundamental weakness, to which Trump alluded. He wouldn’t fight tooth and nail for policies if Republicans resist him. As a result, Biden may not be a very effective leader who “gets things done,” as he claims. And there’s plenty of evidence from his career that points to that conclusion.
JOE BIDEN’S VICE PRESIDENCY – A CLOSER LOOK
On key issues, Obama and Biden caved on their positions and passed half-measures (or nothing at all). On healthcare, they wanted to pass a public healthcare option and instead passed a right-wing individual mandate for people to buy private insurance (they caved even though the Democrats nearly had a supermajority). On gun control, Obama and Biden wanted universal background checks and bans on high capacity magazines and “assault weapons,” but they got nothing. Obama and Biden also tried closing Guantanamo Bay, but Republicans retaliated by blocking funding – so they gave up.
Don’t get me wrong – compromise is often necessary in politics. But if you’re always caving, then your negotiation strategy is wrong.
Let’s consider gun control.
Why Obama and Biden couldn’t get gun reform
Regardless of our personal views on guns, we know that Obama and Biden wanted reform. Why couldn’t they accomplish what they set out to achieve?
In 2013 – after the Sandy Hook shooting – Obama urged Congress to pass universal background checks, limits on high-capacity magazines, bans on assault weapons, and other provisions. The Republicans immediately said, “the Senate will block this.” So Democrats caved and took off the assault weapons ban. Again, Republicans promised to block it. When the Democrats finally introduced gun legislation through the Manchin-Toomey bill, it was watered down to just a background check bill (not universal). Then the Republicans filibustered to block it, and Democrats cut their losses and dropped the issue.
Obama and Biden didn’t make this a campaign issue afterward. They didn’t run ads against the Republicans for this. They didn’t try to pass legislation again. They just gave up.
Obama and Biden let the Republicans manhandle them and control the debate. If you asked Biden today why they failed, he’d likely say, “we did what we could, but Republicans blocked us.” But Obama and Biden could have done more. Instead of caving, they should have upped the ante by adding more provisions into their legislation whenever Republicans blocked them. They should have kept re-introducing their bill in Congress. They should have campaigned against Republicans, particularly those from swing states, and said, “90% of people want universal background checks. Why do the Republicans hate 90% of Americans?” That’s a hyperbolic claim, but that’s how you shift public opinion. They could have run ads and conducted endless interviews with the media to pressure Republicans.
Essentially, to pass legislation, you don’t stop until you win, and you make your case constantly. Obama and Biden didn’t do that, and Biden’s willingness to accept losses could carry over into his presidency.
Again, this is how Biden and Obama acted on many issues. I discussed guns here, but they also did this with healthcare, with Guantanamo Bay, with climate change, and other issues.
But let’s get into the specific issue that Biden raised in the debate: criminal justice reform.
Obama and Biden’s inaction on criminal justice reform
As Trump claimed, Biden and Obama didn’t get much criminal justice reform. They didn’t pass anything substantial through Congress. On top of that, Obama didn’t even use the full extent of his executive authority. For example, Obama released many nonviolent drug offenders from federal prisons. However, he could have legalized marijuana by himself if he wanted.
Marijuana is classified as a “Schedule I drug” under federal law, so it’s illegal and considered as dangerous as heroin. Obama could have taken marijuana off the Schedule, which would make it legal in all 50 states. Of course, a future president could reverse that, so Congress would have to solidify that action. But if Obama and Biden changed the Scheduling, it would show Republicans that they meant business. The fact that Obama and Biden didn’t do that demonstrates that they won’t fight hard for their policies, which signals to Republicans that they can manhandle the Democrats easily.
Though I’ve described Obama here, Biden would be similar. Biden’s policy follows Obama’s – he wants to decriminalize marijuana and expunge the records of nonviolent drug offenders. But he won’t legalize it.
Now, maybe Biden gets what he wants. But I doubt it, and here’s why:
Everyone knows that in a negotiation, you ask for more than what you want so that the final compromise is something you’re okay with. However, Biden isn’t doing that. On this issue, he’s compromising upfront by taking the half-measure position of decriminalizing marijuana rather than legalizing it. Now, that would be fine if Biden would fight for that policy vigorously. But since he never pressured Republicans on issues like gun reform and healthcare, he’ll probably do the same here and cave on criminal justice. If we get any legislation, it’ll likely be a compromise from a half-measure – a quarter measure.
I know that I’ve extrapolated from one of Biden’s statements in the debate. But the argument that “there were Republicans” is reflective of Biden’s career and mentality towards leadership. In my view, we should remember that if Republicans maintain the Senate (or if they lose it and regain it later), then they’ll obstruct Biden’s agenda. They filibustered immensely under Obama, so they’ll repeat that with Biden.
Biden, however, has demonstrated that he’s not prepared to challenge Republican obstruction. So though he may talk a good game on healthcare reform and climate change, it’s an open question as to how much he’d accomplish – whether you like him or not. My verdict: not very much.