Former Vice President Joe Biden built a career on incremental change. Now he’s styling himself as the next Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Biden’s campaign was defined early on as a return to “normalcy” — the time before President Donald Trump took office — but now he is thinking much bigger. With the coronavirus, there’s no “pre-Trump normal” to go back to. Biden’s rhetoric has shifted as well, increasingly laying out a transformational vision for the country.
Over the course of the Democratic primary, progressives — particularly those who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders — made it no secret they found Biden’s more cautious approach inadequate. But with Biden poised to accept the party’s nomination in just a few weeks, many sound a lot more hopeful that he now shares their goals.
“My sense of it is Biden tends to read the room. He’ll move as he deems the politics allow him to,” Sanders’s former presidential campaign manager Faiz Shakir told Vox. “He has certain areas that philosophically he has deep principles on, but then there’s a lot of areas he doesn’t have hard, fast views on.” Shakir added that Biden is a politician who sees “where the politics of possible lie.”
There’s no question the coronavirus has changed the tenor and the stakes of the 2020 election. The United States is still in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 146,000 Americans due to a horribly mismanaged federal response. As cases surge in dozens of states, the country is also suffering the worst job losses since the Great Depression. And growing frustration over systemic racism, police brutality, and decades of pervasive racial and economic inequality is erupting in the streets.
“Biden’s been very clear: To get back to where we were sets the bar way too low,” Biden campaign adviser Jared Bernstein, who served as Biden’s chief economic adviser in the Obama administration, told Vox. “Much like FDR faced a structural crisis of economic insecurity, we’re at a similar place. The vice president recognizes that the extent of market failure here is not something you can fix with a Band-Aid and that structural reforms are necessary.”
Those close to Biden told me that watching the country fall into two debilitating recessions in the past 12 years has had a profound effect on the former vice president. Biden helped shepherd the country out of the 2008 crisis, yet many working families never enjoyed the full benefits of that recovery. With America in yet another economic calamity, Biden now envisions a much larger role for government in his administration if he wins than past Democratic presidents have been comfortable with.
“There’s full knowledge you’ve got to get the shackles off the government,” said former Chicago mayor and Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who engineered the 2006 Democratic House takeover largely by championing moderate candidates and now talks regularly with the Biden campaign. “Right now, whether it’s the market, higher education, the tax code, the criminal justice system — the system’s rigged!”
To hear Sanders’s signature phrase adopted by Democrats firmly in the party’s moderate wing is telling. Multiple people in Democratic circles told Vox that Biden’s closest advisers remain politically cautious, wary that embracing progressive policies too fully could give Trump an opening to attack. But they recognize Trump and Republicans are flailing, and public views of the country — including attitudes around race and economic inequality — are shifting under their feet. There’s also a practical element at play; Biden recognizes the Democratic Party has broadly moved left, and he wants younger and progressive voters to be enthusiastic about his candidacy.
Biden is “someone who if you’ve ever worked with him, you understand he not only tries to get along with people, he does a good job of that — but he’s also willing to step out front,” former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told Vox.
How Biden went from old school to New Deal
Born in 1942, Joe Biden grew up in the progressive heyday of American politics.
He was raised in the aftermath of FDR’s progressive New Deal programs and massive World War II economic mobilization, and Harry Truman’s subsequent liberal Fair Deal programs, which raised the minimum wage and fostered construction of public housing (although Truman’s dream of a national health care system was never realized after significant opposition from Congress). In his 2007 autobiography Promises to Keep, Biden recalls his working-class Irish American family members were “Truman Democrats.”
But Biden’s formative political years in the 1970s and ’80s saw the country swing hard toward the anti-government ethos of former Republican President Ronald Reagan. As far back as his first run for US Senate in 1972, Biden decided his place was somewhere in the middle of the Democratic Party.
“I made it clear that I honored the goals of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Truman’s Fair Deal and Johnson’s Great Society, but I also made it clear that I didn’t intend to be a rubber stamp on programs that no longer worked,” he later wrote in his autobiography.
Biden’s approach to politics cannot be separated from his 36-year career in the US Senate, an institution synonymous with incremental change. There, Biden learned to work with liberals in his own party, as well as Republicans whose views he fundamentally disagreed with. During his tenure as Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden was frequently dispatched to Capitol Hill to try to strike deals with Senate Republicans. Often, success meant compromise.
“Senate success is predicated on what’s achievable,” said Scott Mulhauser, a political consultant, former Biden staffer, and former top Senate Finance Committee staffer. “You factor in trade-offs, you start vote-counting, and you get to 84 percent of what you want. That is real change much of the time, but it takes negotiations; it takes knowing where the votes are hidden and how to unlock them. And Biden is a master of delivering results in an often unwranglable Senate.”
In 2012, then-Vice President Biden was the lead White House negotiator with Senate Republicans on a tax deal to stave off a government shutdown. The resulting deal left many Democrats, especially progressives, unhappy: draconian across-the-board cuts to the entire government called sequestration that hampered the Senate’s budgetary work for years.
Reid, then the top Senate Democrat, wanted to hold out longer rather than capitulating to Republican demands. But Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell went directly to Biden, confident he could broker a deal — which is exactly what happened. Reports at the time described Reid as “furious,” but he now speaks much more diplomatically of Biden’s intervention, saying “no one was more important to resolving that issue.”
“When the Republicans shut down the government, Joe Biden was one who worked with Republicans and with me to get them to back off,” Reid told Vox.
Biden is a savvy political operator whose strength lies in building coalitions. As he charts his presidential agenda, Biden realizes he needs the left wing of his party. And to bring in the progressives, he recognizes that collaborating with them on meaningful policy is a way to gain their support. Biden has cast a wide net for ideas; his campaign has talked with progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren, liberal economists from the Obama administration, and “every Democratic think tank under the sun,” one Biden aide told Vox.
Biden embraced the $15 minimum wage and pro-union laws many months ago but has more recently come out with a bolder $2 trillion climate plan and a $700 billion economic revitalization plan to bolster American business, research, and manufacturing. Aides often compare the scale of Biden’s planned public investments to World War II-era ones.
Perhaps the most important working relationship has been with Biden’s one-time political rival Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Biden campaign and former Sanders campaign officials orchestrated a series of “task forces” on every major domestic policy issue at the beginning of the summer. Task force members viewed documents they produced as a policy blueprint for the next president — all with the underlying theme of massive new government investment in job creation. Still, Biden hasn’t yet committed to all of the recommendations in the report. Sources told Vox the creation of the task forces had a lot to do with the warm personal relationship between Biden and Sanders.
“There’s a deep amount of personal respect on Biden’s side for who Bernie is and what he’s doing, and there’s a common bond,” said a source close to the task forces.
Still, some progressives were stunned the collaboration happened at all.
“The approach has always been winner takes all. It’s never happened before in history where the winning nominee brings the losing nominee to the table and is subjected to people in that policy world,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union and a Sanders-picked member of the Biden/Sanders task forces. “These were really big policy ideas that were oceans apart in a lot of ways — in the Democratic context, of course.”
“I think the compromise that they came up with, if implemented, will make Biden the most progressive president since FDR,” Sanders said on a recent MSNBC appearance.
It’s not just progressives who are saying this; even centrist Democrats believe the reaction to Trump’s disastrous mishandling of the pandemic and the economy has shifted the political establishment’s views on the role of government to think much bigger.
“Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were operating under the shadows of the Reagan ‘government-is-the-problem’ [idea],” said Emanuel. “I think Biden is the end of the Reagan critique and the beginning of something new, a touchstone of a view where the government was an affirmative force and public service was a noble profession.”
The return to that view of government as a force of good has been driven home by the Trump era, where the federal government has been near absent in a historic pandemic — and many states have suffered greatly due to the lack of national leadership.
“My sense is that a lot of this has shifted because of Covid,” said Varshini Prakash, the co-founder and executive director of the youth climate group the Sunrise Movement and a Biden/Sanders task force member. “I think there’s a pretty strong mandate from the American public that we have to beat back on this Reagan-era understanding of the government as evil.”
Biden listens to those who redefined Democrats in the Clinton era
Biden’s policies might be drifting to the left, but he still listens to people who famously tacked the party to the center in the 1990s, leaving some progressives wary.
Biden’s inner orbit is made up of officials who also came up in the era of market-oriented centrism; his closest advisers include his sister Valerie Biden Owens, Steve Ricchetti, Mike Donilon, Anita Dunn, Ron Klain, and Bruce Reed. Many of the inner circle have been with Biden for decades and are part of the nucleus of his most trusted ring of advisers. Two more key policy staffers on the Biden campaign are policy director Stef Feldman and senior adviser Jake Sullivan.
Another trusted adviser is Ted Kaufman, Biden’s Senate chief of staff and an older progressive who briefly served as a US senator from Delaware. Kaufman is currently heading up the Biden transition team separate from the campaign, which counts as members a number of progressives including Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chief of staff Gautam Raghavan, and Julie Siegel, a top adviser in Warren’s Senate office. A trio of economists who served in the Obama administration — Austan Goolsbee, Byron Auguste, and Gene Sperling — are also advising the Biden campaign on its economic proposals, according to a source familiar with the team.
While many in Biden’s closest group of advisers are focused on political strategy, Reed is an influential voice on policy. Those who know Reed describe him as a quiet presence who rarely speaks to the press (he did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story). Reed has also shaped many of the foundational ideas and principles of the Democratic Party’s centrists, many of whom adopted the label “New Democrats.”
Reed got his start as a speechwriter for then-Sen. Al Gore in 1985 and served as President Bill Clinton’s domestic policy adviser and director of Clinton’s White House Domestic Policy Council. He also served as CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist think tank associated with Clinton.
Reed’s policy record hews to the center. At age 31, he was the architect of Clinton’s controversial 1996 welfare reform bill and coined Clinton’s famous slogan “end welfare as we know it.” As Reed explained in later interviews, he and Clinton not only wanted to get more people off welfare and back to work, they also wanted to prove that moderate Democrats could execute an idea Republicans had been kicking around for years with no action.
Reed later praised Clinton in a 2004 University of Virginia oral history for “taking an issue that Republicans had demagogued for years and turning it into an affirmative, political, and substantive agenda for Democrats. It was not without controversy.”
At first, Clinton’s program appeared to be working; poverty and welfare enrollment both fell from the early ’90s to the early 2000s (albeit in a job market that was already very good and with a boost from Clinton’s expansion of the earned income tax credit). But as Vox’s Dylan Matthews wrote, later studies cast doubt on the efficacy of the program, pointing out that reform also reduced the earnings of the poor, especially for the lowest-income people. Those who fell into deepest poverty — often single mothers or families with children — were hit the hardest because their access to a steady income via government checks was restricted.
Reed, who at times was one of the lone Democratic voices pushing welfare reform in Clinton’s Cabinet, didn’t escape criticism from his fellow Democrats. Clinton’s move on welfare reform caused some of his staff to resign in protest. Reed later remembered being called a “right-wing hack” for being a vociferous advocate for the bill and for working with a Republican Congress to pass it in the mid-1990s.
Reed was also a central figure in the creation of the Children’s Health Insurance Program in the late ’90s, a generous plan covering children whose families are low-income but did not qualify for Medicaid. As of 2018, the program covered around 9.6 million children.
Reed’s former colleagues often use the word “shrewd” to describe him, saying he has a particular knack for synthesizing and executing ideas. Emanuel worked with Reed in the Clinton White House and wrote a book with him in 2006 that advocated for more incremental Democratic ideas including federal tuition grants to make public colleges free or dramatically cheaper, a universal retirement savings program, and universal civilian service composed of “three months of basic training, civil defense preparation, and community service.”
When Reed took over as Biden’s chief of staff in the Obama White House from January 2011 to November 2013, Vox’s Ezra Klein — then at the Washington Post — wrote, “He’s not just a policy wonk, but a policy entrepreneur, and his long-term project has been persuading Democrats to chart a more centrist, market-friendly approach.”
As Biden’s chief of staff, Reed was on many of Biden’s calls to congressional Republicans during negotiations with the White House. He is steeped in the art of negotiating with the other side, always with the top goal of getting something done — even if it takes compromise.
“He’s the same he always has been — extremely practical, shrewd in his assessment of the impact of particular policy proposals, first on the problem at hand and second on the politics of the problem at hand,” said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank who worked with Reed in the Clinton administration. “He respects market-driven economics while respecting its limits.”
Reed is now integrally involved in the campaign’s ideas and policy shop. Before joining the Biden campaign, his more recent work focused on the economy and the issue of income inequality for the working class.
“Part of the challenge is how do you make capitalism work for working people, and I think the bargain that we had between employers and workers and government that held up well during the 20th century has really fallen apart in the last few years,” Reed said in a 2018 C-SPAN interview, adding that jobs are not paying enough and often come with few benefits. “It’s not that we’re failing to get richer as a country. Our economy has grown considerably over the last several decades, it’s just the bounty’s not being shared.”
Reed wasn’t just a Clinton Democrat; he was an ideas man behind Clinton. But in the nearly 20 years between Clinton’s administration and Biden’s presidential campaign, the economy has gotten vastly more unequal.
“Now we’re a different society, much less equal,” said Will Marshall, president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist think tank, and a prominent New Democrat who worked with Reed in the Clinton years. “We’re in a different context, no longer framed by the success of the Reagan revolution and a public reaction against ’60s/’70s liberalism that was real and palpable.”
Reed has already proven himself an adept, if controversial, negotiator inside the White House and with Capitol Hill. While he has an integral behind-the-scenes role in the campaign, it’s too early to tell whether that will continue in a possible Biden administration.
“I would view him now as a classic Biden Democrat,” said Galston. “He is very practical both in policy terms and political terms, which means he will not in any way be a barrier to the kinds of changes Joe Biden needs to make in his economic plans to reflect the needs of the moment or the politics.”
But for Reed and other Biden brain trust members who cut their teeth in the Clinton era, the definition of a Biden Democrat is changing. In many ways, it’s coming around full circle, back to the vision of FDR or Harry Truman more so than Bill Clinton — an effect made unavoidable by the coronavirus pandemic.
The coronavirus has fundamentally reshaped Biden’s agenda
The core theme of a Biden administration is restoring a long-defunct social contract in America: “an economy that rewards work, not wealth,” as Biden said in his Super Tuesday victory speech.
It’s an idea at the center of his core ideology: that by working hard, you should be able to get ahead and build a comfortable life. But for many working- and middle-class Americans, that’s a broken concept. The American economy was unequal long before the Great Recession of 2008, but that economic crash widened the chasm between the rich and everyone else.
A February Pew analysis painted a bleak picture: The wealth gap between America’s richest and poorest families more than doubled from the late 1980s to 2016, and the country’s richest families were the only ones who saw their wealth increase since the 2008 recession, while families in lower tiers saw their share of wealth decrease.
Furthermore, Pew found the US has the highest level of income inequality among the G7 countries, the Black-white income gap has not changed since the 1970s, and Black families make about $30,000 less in median income. The feeling among many Americans is that no matter how hard they work, getting ahead is nearly impossible.
“Success for him will look like restoring that basic bargain,” said Biden campaign senior adviser Jake Sullivan. “[Biden’s] already been clear that investment in resilient and sustainable infrastructure that drives substantial job creation will be a big priority out of the gate.”
“This is not just about rolling back President Trump’s actions,” added the campaign’s policy director, Stef Feldman. “It’s about moving dramatically forward in order to build a stronger, more resilient middle class.”
Biden doesn’t necessarily need to go big or bold with his policy plans to win the election; polls show him outperforming Trump among independent, suburban, and older voters, all of whom tend to be moderate. His main weak point lies with younger voters, who are still less enthusiastic about him but who also care deeply about climate change.
Those close to Biden say watching President Trump mishandle the current situation with the coronavirus has spurred a desire for greater action.
“Execution is huge for him, and to watch the extent to which Trump is failing in that regard is particularly unsettling because of the economic repercussions,” said Bernstein, Biden’s former chief economic adviser. “We need to get back to an economy that’s much more resilient to the kinds of shocks that come in fast and furious these days.”
Sanders’s team jumped at the chance to work with Biden, recognizing they could leave a real imprint on Biden’s policies. Biden has already announced a $2 trillion green infrastructure plan to put Americans back to work and get the US on track to drastically cut its greenhouse gas emissions; a $15 minimum wage and union-strengthening laws; and a new public service corps to step up the fight against the coronavirus and provide mental health services to marginalized communities.
While progressives are heartened by Biden’s plans and rhetoric, they are next trying to put pressure on his personnel choices. While Elizabeth Warren’s name often comes up in the context of his choice for vice president, many progressives would like to see her named US Treasury secretary in a Biden administration.
“[Personnel] send a symbolic message of what kind of administration you are trying to form,” Shakir, Sanders’s former campaign manager, told Vox. “Here you’ve got a progressive policy blueprint; now you need the progressive policy personnel to make it happen.”
Of course, campaign promises are very different from the compromises that come with legislating and governing. There will inevitably be some measures where a Biden administration would be more incremental, for instance with health care. Biden has already committed to working to shore up the Affordable Care Act and supporting a public option as president — but that may be easier said than done.
“You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) told me, saying he believes reinstating the full programs of the ACA and establishing new enrollment periods are crucial progress. “That’s not just cutting back what this president has done; that’s going to allow us to continue to build on the health care program.”
Biden will also have to negotiate with Republicans in some form or fashion — whether the GOP is in the majority or the minority of the Senate. He recently signaled he could be open to filibuster reform if Republicans stall his agenda, telling Ezra Klein, “It’s going to depend on how obstreperous they become.”
“He has decades of experience negotiating with Republicans, and much of it has been successful. But if they refuse to negotiate in good faith with him, that’s not going to stop the agenda,” Bernstein said.
Understanding that they have to win an election before they can get to the hard work of governing, progressives feel optimistic. Rather than having a candidate for president who overpromises and underdelivers, they hope this year could bring the opposite.