Welcoming President Biden

I’m seeing a bunch of lefty “O.K., now let’s go after Joe Biden.” I expect to be in that game myself, but some preliminary cautions are appropriate. At the very least, shouldn’t we hold back criticism until some proposals are rolled out? Some of them will be in the form of trial balloons, which can be shot down as needed. Others will be more forthright. In either case, our brickbats should be substantive.

The fate of Senate races in Georgia will of course be enormously consequential, but they don’t make as much difference when it comes to our longer-term aspirations. Whether or not the Senate ends up even (with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote), our vision for social transformation is the same. What is different will be the short-term bargaining situation.

One thing to avoid is binary, all-or-nothing responses. For instance, Biden will propose to expand coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Rejecting any such proposals because they are not “Medicare For All” would be unwise. The convenient and inconvenient thing about health care is that it is infinitely divisible along a continuum. There are always ways to get a bit more, or a bit less. Of course we should demand more than what we expect to get in the end. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with the M4A slogan.

Even so, Medicare For All is an empty box. I’m on Medicare, and I can assure you that in its present form, by itself, it is woefully inadequate as health insurance. M4A proposals in Congress substantially expand Medicare benefits and coverage. With a hostile Senate, expansion of Medicare will be daunting. It will also be a potent political demand. M4A will come to signify universal coverage, something hard to reject for Republicans who are up for election in 2022.

The Biden plan will put a ceiling, at least in the short term, over what is possible. Any such cap is — should be — vulnerable to criticism. Ironically, the more intransigent a Republican Senate could prove to be, the more flexibility it lends to the side of full-blown M4A. If McConnell refuses to deal and keeps his people in line, then there is no incentive to noodle with compromises. If the Senate isn’t blue by January, M4A can make it so in two years.

Aside from genuinely popular initiatives of the sort introduced by Bernie Sanders, Biden has another source of leverage: executive decisions that do not require legislation. Threats on this front might motivate some stray Republican votes on measures that do require legislation. We have every right to expect a blizzard of executive orders that fill the hopper and will be ready to go, the day after the inauguration. The other immediate priority is another Covid/recession relief measure, since anything negotiated with Mitch McConnell and Trump prior to January 20th is likely to be inadequate.

Two things worry me the most.

One is a return to the old-time religion of deficit reduction. Most Democrats have wised up to the political chicanery embodied in this issue. Republicans care about deficits when it comes to Democratic proposals, never when it comes to their own. The problem is, some Democrats, including some liberal economists, still think the national debt is a Problem. Like Obama, Biden might be gulled into some kind of ‘grand bargain’ that entails cuts in Social Security and Medicare and tax increases. It will be marketed as “Saving Social Security.” Such a decision would certainly lead to disaster in the next midterm elections, as did similar decisions by Bill Clinton in 1994 and Barack Obama in 2010. It would also pave the way for Trump: The Sequel in 2024.

The other thing that bothers me is the prospect of Biden returning to the traditional, bipartisan posture of U.S. world policeman hegemony that leads to debacles in Libya and Iraq. The flashpoints include North Korea and Iran. I count the latter as less likely since Biden would probably resurrect the agreement with Iran made by Obama. But by and large, this is an appetite that is never satiated. Ironically, Trump’s signal contribution to the national well-being lay in his aversion to any such grand-scale projects. His violence was focused on defenseless drone victims in the Middle East and desperate asylum seekers at the U.S. southern border.

One tip-off will be the new administration’s plans for the military budget. The need for the “empire of bases” or the ability to fight a couple of ground wars has never seemed less persuasive. The most evident threats to U.S. national security would seem to be in cyberspace, where meddlesome state actors and potential terrorists communicate.

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