Is Biden a Transformational President?
Updated: May 5
By Thomas Neuburger
One of the loudest arguments on the left is over the value of incremental change, often framed as "incrementalism versus wholesale transformation."
Keep in mind that there are degrees to each of these sides; this is not a classic either-or dichotomy. Incremental social and political change can be absolutely glacial, spanning centuries (women's rights is a good example; that took millennia), or relatively quick, spanning just a generation or two (marijuana legalization has taken this path).
And transformation can be slower, the semi-decade it took to convert Tsarist Russia militarily into the Soviet Union, for example — or remarkably sudden, the week it took to depose the Tsar and establish a non-Tsarist state (the February Revolution), or the half-year it took for Lenin to take over the apparatus of that new state (the November Revolution).
But we can still distinguish them. One feature of incremental change is that it's not that upsetting based on what most people want, while transformational challenges to the status quo tend to be much more resisted andturbulent.
The sexual revolution of the Sixties and Seventies, for example, was transformational, but once that change occurred, the slower change into a society in which unmarried couples, for example, could live together without a heavy application of shame from the rest of society was not that upsetting to most people. It took very few years for the "scandal" of braless women to spawn highly popular TV shows like Charlie's Angels.
This is why marijuana reform, which seems to be happening suddenly these days, is actually incremental. The real transformation occurred in those same Sixties and Seventies, when a great most young people suddenly started openly using it. The incrementalism occurred during a much longer wearing-down period during which small but powerful revanchist political forces managed to delay, for two generations, legislation that most people had come quickly to fully support.
Which brings us to Joe Biden and his supposed FDR tendencies. It's clear that FDR, in a few short months, passed transformative legislation and in a few short years transformed America itself. The modern regulatory state was born during his administration, and though it has been reduced — again, by revanchist political and economic forces — it hasn't (yet) been dismantled.
Will Joe Biden do the same? The answer is clear: Absolutely not.
Here's what a real transformational president would and could do in his first year in office.
Give Medicare To All of Us
To start, Biden could use existing authority to give everyone who became infected with Covid-19 immediate and permanent access to Medicare, just as the government did for the people of Libby, Montana:
The people of Libby, Montana, population 2,628, share something in common with the rest of the developed world, but not their compatriots in the United States. They all have access to a single-payer, Medicare-for-All system.
As part of the Affordable Care Act, the residents of Libby, who were exposed to hazardous airborne asbestos from a vermiculite mine owned by the W.R. Grace Company, were made eligible for Medicare, for free, at the discretion of the Social Security Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It was codified in Section 1881A of the Social Security Act. The language of the statute refers to any individuals subject to an “environmental exposure,” though it was well understood at the time that this was about Libby. ...
There’s an environmental health hazard spreading through the entire country right now. It’s infecting people unsuspectingly and killing hundreds of thousands. It’s bound to saddle those who survive with long-term and potentially debilitating health consequences. And using Section 1881A, the incoming Biden administration can give all 11 million people infected with COVID—and if they want to be really aggressive—all Americans who have tested positive for coronavirus the option of free Medicare coverage, immediately.
He could even use that same legislation — Section 1881A — to give Medicare to everyone in the country, whether infected or not:
(b) Pilot Program for Care of Certain Individuals Residing in Emergency Declaration Areas.—
(1) Program; purpose.—
(A) Primary pilot program.—The Secretary shall establish a pilot program in accordance with this subsection to provide innovative approaches to furnishing comprehensive, coordinated, and cost-effective care under this title to individuals described in paragraph (2)(A).
(B) Optional pilot programs.—The Secretary may establish a separate pilot program, in accordance with this subsection, with respect to each geographic area subject to an emergency declaration (other than the declaration of June 17, 2009), in order to furnish such comprehensive, coordinated and cost-effective care to individuals described in subparagraph (2)(B) who reside in each such area. [...]
This allows HHS Secretary to establish a "pilot program" — it could be Medicare access — for anyone described below.
Who is eligible? Anyone in the "geographic area subject to an emergency declaration" and who is an "an environmental exposure affected individual" — that's all of us thanks to Trump's Covid emergency declaration. Section 1881A continues:
(2) Individual described.—For purposes of paragraph (1), an individual described in this paragraph is an individual who enrolls in part B, submits to the Secretary an application to participate in the applicable pilot program under this subsection, and—
(A) is an environmental exposure affected individual described in subsection (e)(2) who resides in or around the geographic area subject to an emergency declaration made as of June 17, 2009; or
(B) is an environmental exposure affected individual described in subsection (e)(3) who—
(i) is deemed under subsection (a)(2); and
(ii) meets such other criteria or conditions for participation in a pilot program under paragraph (1)(B) as the Secretary specifies.
This could easily apply to every living person in the United States. And that would be truly transformational. Once done it would be so popular that no one after him would dare undo it.
Which is why Joe Biden will never let it happen.
But Wait, There's More
Biden's transformational opportunities don't end there. The American Prospect in their Day One Agenda project (all praise and honor to them for doing it) published a list of 277 other transformational changes that the Biden administration could have done immediately under existing authority:
We found 277 policies that can be enacted through executive branch powers in the Biden-Sanders unity task force document.
48 of the policies, or 17 percent, are rollbacks of Trump-era policy changes.
Immigration (78 policies), Climate Change (54 policies), and the Economy (54 policies) have the most potential executive actions.
These actions include, but aren't limited to:
Immediately removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.
Immediately and aggressively use presidential pardon and clemency powers to redress the harm done by over-aggressive policing and sentencing for non-violent crimes — including immediately clemency for non-violent drug offenders.
Create a clear federal standard on use of police force.
Impose "rigorous oversight" on "big corporations" using federal COVID-19 relief programs, to ensure use for keeping workers on payroll rather than enriching executives or shareholders.
Issue an infectious-disease workplace safety standard via OSHA.
Direct EPA and DOJ to pursue and prosecute pollution cases to the fullest extent possible under law.
I would also add, make permanent its temporary ban on new oil and gas leases on federal land:
The U.S. Interior Department is cancelling oil and gas lease sales from public lands through June amid an ongoing review of how the program contributes to climate change, officials said Wednesday.
The action does not affect existing leases, and the agency has continued to issue new drilling permits during the open-ended review ordered by the White House, said Nada Culver, deputy director of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management.
And while we're at it, let's cancel all federally held student debt, which is most of it. See "Possible methods of government-financed student debt cancellation" on page 19 of this Levy Institute paper (pdf) for authority and methodology.
There are literally hundreds of things like these Biden could do, but won't.
Yes, Biden is proving to be more an agent of (some) change than anyone expected. But is that good enough? Ask yourself if the nation can continue on an incrementally adjusted version its current course for another thirty years.
Will Trump-fed anger and Sanders-supporting discontent wait that long for the lives of the lower 90% — prey to the super-rich — to finally improve? Most lives haven't improved since Clinton was president. How long before something happens that isn't contained within electoral boundaries? Or maybe I should ask "how long before else happens?" — keeping in mind the discontent that led to the Capitol riot.
Will racial justice warriors continue to put up with an endless stream of proud-boy killer cops murdering with impunity the black, brown and poor, even if a tiny minority somehow get convicted? Or will someone, starved of judicial justice, strike back extra-judicially to balance the extra-judicial murders their loved ones endure?
And finally, when will the climate crisis drown us all?
We know it's coming, all of us do. We're just hoping it happens in the next generation. But what if it happens in this generation? It will, according to the authors of this recent analysis. As one commenter sums up the report:
1.5°C global average temperature increase will occur around 2030, a decade ahead of IPCC projections regardless of any action taken in the interim.
2°C is likely prior to 2050.
3°C is likely early-to-midway through the 2nd half of the century.
“Hothouse Earth” — non-linear, irreversible, self-sustaining warming — may be triggered between 1.5 – 2.0°C.
Current global warming, 1.3°C in 2020, is already dangerous. 2°C would be extremely dangerous. 3°C would be catastrophic.
In a true climate-chaos situation, filled with increasingly costly, unfixable, implacable catastrophes, do you imagine the United States will maintain territorial integrity? Or will the government abandon its unliftable burden and let the nation, county by county, go feral?
Where's the room for incrementalism in that, even from the most reformed of corrupt politicians? Answer: There's no room at all.
We're going to get transformation, one way or another. The only question is, will we control it or will it control us?
(I've launched a Substack site to greet the post-Trump era, the age in which the aggregated Democratic Party will show what it's made of. You can get more information here and here. If you decide to sign up — it's free — my thanks to you!)