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Personnel is Policy


While one can criticize Biden’s performance so far on a number of fronts (immigration, glacial rate of appointments, some foreign policy issues), his economic priorities have been absolutely outstanding. He’s basically taking Elizabeth Warren’s policy and her preferred people and making them his own. Which is great! Rebecca Traister has a worthy piece on this.

One of Biden’s most salient qualities — perhaps what Piven meant when she referred to his “sleazy politician” vibe and others describe as his undeniable aptitude for retail politics — gives him another advantage. Joe Biden is good at being a politician. When ideological shifts are precipitous, said Claudia Sahm, an economist who served on the Council of Economic Advisors under Obama, “some people get very torn because they’re not fighting just an older generation; they’re fighting their past selves. But if you’re political enough, you just roll with it and pretend no one noticed. I don’t get a lot of sense from Biden that he’s feeling bad.”

And he shouldn’t feel bad! Over the years, he has changed his mind on gay marriage and abortion, acknowledged that the drug laws he wrote wreaked havoc on families. “We actually do want politicians to be responsive, at least to our side,” said Dorian Warren. “Politicians are supposed to constantly put their finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. It’s our job to shift the wind.”

One of the ways the wind has changed in recent years is that it’s not always blowing from the top. Joe Biden is the president because of organizing that originated not with his party but with voters and activists long ignored by Democrats. He seems to have learned from that. “To see that Black women and Indigenous people and poor people and Latinos and Asians delivered states that he never thought he could win,” said Jayapal, “He has turned out to be somebody who learned things that probably would contradict things he did in his past.”

Some of what he’s learned has surely helped guide his hiring. That he has brought in so many young people, and in some cases put them in positions of authority, matters: He is seeding the next 40 years of government. Biden not only nominated 32-year-old Khan, a leading advocate of antitrust enforcement of tech monopolies and a vociferous foe of Amazon, to the FTC; in a genuinely hard-core move, on the day she was confirmed, he made her the chair. Khan and the many regulatory enthusiasts she is bringing with her are what Biden wanted. He wasn’t just checking a box; he was building a bench.

“I think we’re watching a sea change,” said Sahm, but that’s precisely the challenge facing Biden and Democrats: governing through ideological shifts, making and passing policy rooted in ideas that remain suspect to many of the most powerful in D.C., executing that legislation competently and then advertising that they did it.

It’s a lot. And the Democrats who have been at the wheel on Capitol Hill for 40 years have zero practice shepherding the kinds of big solutions that originate in activist circles. In the ’70s, the last time Democrats were vigorously aligned with labor, civil-rights, and women’s movements, when confronted with Reagan’s union-busting, racist, sexist backlash, they folded. When Biden himself, initially a supporter of busing designed to integrate schools, was confronted with objections from white constituents in Delaware, he folded.

He surely does not want to fold now; his recent gaffe — in which he went off script, indicating to reporters that he would not sign the bipartisan infrastructure deal if the American Families Plan wasn’t also passed through reconciliation, a comment he has since walked back — was an indication that he is very into these ideas. He knows they will help people and that, if enacted, would cement a remarkable legacy. But loving the ideas is clearly not the same as successfully steering them through. “You need to be able to craft ground-shifting legislation,” said Jess Morales Rocketto of Care in Action, “but then you need Hill leaders who know how to get behind it. The people who are going to be out there defending these bills just don’t know yet all the ways the right is going to try to fuck us.”

And Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema may try to fuck us too. But you have to move forward the best you can. Biden has certainly learned. As we’ve stated many times around here, Biden is a politician’s politician, which means he moves with the party. That hasn’t changed now that he is the party leader. In the 90s, Biden would have been as awful as Bill Clinton. In the 20s, he has the most progressive economic program since Lyndon Johnson. That’s because the grassroots has moved and pushed him hard. Keep on pushing!

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