Joe Biden is a progressive icon.
There, I said it. You’re cringing, I know.
The typical Bowdoin student’s reaction to Joe Biden is an oxymoron: hard-lined apathy.
If you’re politically aware, then you’re haughtily unimpressed by the President’s so-called accomplishments. Rejoining the Paris Accords? Please. If Exxon lobbyists wanted it bad enough, Biden would put a pipeline through the White House lobby.
In class, government professors tip-toe around the Biden administration, careful not to stir up progressive angst. Most of my friends are passionate proclaimers of the mundanity of the Biden administration—equally quick to jump on neoliberal schilling as they are to call out repugnant, anti-democratic fascism. My roommate was just as shocked when I told him I was glad I voted for Biden as he was when we drove past a guy with “Behead Joe Biden” scrawled in the dust on the back of his truck.
All this to say: I’ve had enough. I’m a card-carrying progressive. I’ve been to plenty of Bernie rallies. And I’m anything but apathetic about the most left-wing administration that has ever graced the Oval Office.
In fairness to my Biden-skeptical comrades, my perspective is partly informed by my experience working for the administration over the summer.
As an intern at the AmeriCorps CEO Immediate Office, I was swept up in the whirlwind of frenetic, wonkish energy of a freshly recruited executive branch. My role was to help lay the groundwork for the new Civilian Conservation Corps—a Biden-mandated initiative to fight climate change through a massive federal work program, modeled on FDR’s own Civilian Conservation Corps.
For the first few weeks, I expected to stumble headfirst into fretting appointees, anxious about alienating bipartisan (i.e. Republican) partners. This didn’t happen.
Instead, our leadership team encouraged us to borrow heavily from the Sunrise Movement and the upstart Evergreen Action in our policy memos. Our program scouting focused on frontline communities, union partnerships and underrepresented groups in the climate movement. We were tracking Civilian Conservation Corps proposals from firebrands like AOC and Ed Markey, not establishment compromisers like Chris Coons. All of our research and planning was framed by open and constructive dialogue between the White House, grassroots leaders like Varshini Prakash and climate champions on the Hill.
In hindsight, this shouldn’t have surprised me. A close eye on the Biden administration reveals a deeply progressive streak as old as the New Deal.
Like Barack Obama, Joe Biden is a crisis president. Instead of an economic crash wrought by a failing housing market, Biden inherited a raging pandemic in a nation with a highly—and preventably—susceptible population. Unlike his Democratic predecessor, however, Biden’s crisis policies are not isolated from his ideological agenda. Instead of bailing out banks, the President supercharged the economy with $1.9 trillion in relief funding, distributed across education, direct assistance, health, transportation and other critical programs. Like FDR and LBJ, Biden is intent on harnessing an emergency to reframe the government’s role as a powerful provider of stimulus to the economy.
This reframing is crucial, because it demonstrates to the American public the federal government’s utility and reliability as a problem-solving tool. With this trust established, there will be more political capital to take public-facing steps toward progressive agenda items like universal healthcare, climate regulation and immigration reform.
I’m not going to deny that Biden has an image problem. He’s an old, white, male relic of a forgotten era of politics, where ‘cross-the-aisle friendships’ with avowed segregationists were something to celebrate. Some of that history is impossible to forgive. But part of Biden’s value is that he is politically self-aware; he understands that his background and history is prohibitive to certain forms of leadership, which requires outsourcing.
On the heels of a billion dollar infrastructure bill, the White House and its allies in Congress are gearing up to pass $3 trillion worth of climate and social safety spending. At the same time, we’re on the eve of a likely government shutdown; a ludicrous battle waged entirely by perennial conservative deficit-hawks. It’s a great time to meditate on how we want to engage with the Biden administration’s domestic agenda.
I’m not asking anybody to slap on a Biden bumper sticker. But if you really think Biden isn’t as progressive, isn’t as competent, isn’t as bold, isn’t as visionary as he should be, try to qualify it. After all, this is an administration that believes in self-examination.
Colter Adams is a member of the Class of 2024.