When Barack Obama and Joe Biden took over the White House in 2008, they had run on an ambitious agenda that included many of the same policies that Vice President Biden now advocates. President Obama threatened to withdraw from NAFTA, repeal the Bush tax cuts at the top, opposed secret-ballot union elections (favoring so-called card check), and supported sweeping climate change legislation. Armed with a supermajority in the Senate, anything was possible.
But when President Obama looked at the reeling economy that he inherited, he (thank goodness) thought twice. Big disruptive policies would have likely hurled us from recession into depression, and whether he intended to pursue them or not, he dropped his agenda when given the chance to enact it. The Obama administration enthusiastically embraced free trade, and even the Bush tax cuts were extended for a time. When climate activists fret that policy action in the United States has been in denial, they should think back to 2009, when Henry Waxman and Edward Markey developed a bill that would address climate change with a cap-and-trade system. The bill passed the House, but only because it won eight Republican votes, and then it died in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
This history raises two important thoughts as we debate American policy going forward. First of all, if there is a policy that we should now be following, one should ask why Democrats didn’t introduce it when they had the chance, possessing a supermajority in the Senate? The second thought is the answer to the question; big changes are constitutionally very difficult in our system because of the Senate and the filibuster. Even with a supermajority, a few moderates in the controlling party can stifle a vote.
Which brings us to the difficult challenge of handicapping the likely policy environment should Joe Biden win in November. Moderate supporters argue that the same retreat from radicalism that characterized the Obama administration would occur again, while convention speakers enthusiastically pointed to the recommendations of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force and promised to deliver.
Logically, if the intent of Vice President Biden were to ignite his base with aggressive promises, but to drop the policies, as happened before, he would perhaps discuss the policies at length, but then discuss his intent to generate bipartisan support in order to enact successful legislation. To some extent, this is the approach the vice president has taken, but ominously he has also expressed a willingness to consider a change to the filibuster rule in the Senate. When asked about it on a call in mid July, Biden responded, according to the New York Times, “It’s going to depend on how obstreperous they become,” referring, of course, to Republicans.
President Obama, perhaps stung by disappointment over his own inability to enact his platform in our divided government system was clearer about his party’s intent, when he spoke at the funeral of Congressman John Lewis and said that the filibuster was a “Jim Crow” relic and should be eliminated if necessary.
The economy was in bad shape when President Obama took over, with a year-over-year drop in real GDP of 3 percent as of the second quarter of 2009, and it is likely that the economy will be in an analogous spot at the beginning of 2021. Accordingly, policy moderates would have plenty of excuses to table Joe Biden’s big tax increases and costly new regulations. That may be a reassuring thought to many voters.
A candidate running for office must balance appeal to moderate swing voters and the desire to maximize turnout of his base. The Unity Task Force has plenty of catnip for the Democratic base, but the aggressive language about the filibuster is a signal that Democrats are serious about enacting the agenda this time, come hell or high water.
If Joe Biden loses, historians might very well look back to the aggressive discussion about the “Jim Crow relic” filibuster as the moment when he lost the moderates he needs to win the election.