Biden should embrace transformative policies, not fear them

Democrats have played it safe and allowed Republicans to hijack US politics. Now a nation in crisis needs real change.

Biden transformative politics/Anthony Pahnke
US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event in Dover, Delaware on June 5, 2020 [Jim Bourg/Reuters]

Now is the time, as Joe Biden has earned enough delegates to secure the Democratic Party nomination, for his campaign to champion progressive, transformative policies in the United States.

Why? Well, the global coronavirus pandemic has rocked the US economy, causing unemployment to soar. This, as President Donald Trump’s failure to effectively confront the virus’s spread reveals a country in need of leadership. Meanwhile, nationwide protests to denounce the brutal killing of an unarmed African American man – George Floyd – at the hands of police are forcing the nation to confront its violent, white supremacist past and present.

We are left with the following question – is Biden up to the demands of the moment?

As of right now, the jury is still out.

Biden chose to follow his home state of Delaware’s shelter-in-place ordinance, almost too well, giving only infrequent interviews over the last couple of months.

Even in the pre-pandemic political era, Biden showed himself to be a candidate who struggled to articulate his positions in debates, as well as someone with moderate if not conservative positions on how to change the US’s broken healthcare system and address income inequality.

Biden did show some life in his June 2 speech where he addressed the US’s history of racism, while also calling out Trump for his flawed response to the protests.

Yet, to make good on his word, Biden needs to actively embrace many of the progressive positions currently floating around the American left. This includes real police reform, substantive changes to healthcare, as well as a dramatic change to immigration and environmental policy.

Truth be told, Biden needs to take a different position to what the Democratic party establishment has historically been comfortable with.

Consider healthcare, the signature achievement of Obama-era policy. The Affordable Care Act did provide coverage to more than 20 million Americans. Yet, this came only after Republicans and conservative Democrats negotiated away the public option – a governmentally-funded health insurer that would have competed with private providers and most likely, driven down prices. Without this, private insurers continue to control the industry, doing nothing to stall rising premiums.

And with immigration policy? Here, again, an ambitious promise for comprehensive reform championed during the Obama years failed to materialise. Yes, DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – provides a temporary reprieve from deportation for many undocumented youths in the US. But the programme involves just under one million people, leaving millions with nothing.

Meanwhile, Republicans have effectively dominated the national debate on immigration. Trump made an anti-immigrant stance central to his campaign, while Democrats – Biden included – struggled to articulate a clear position in the debates.

And how have the Democrats faired as they caved to Republicans in these critical policy areas?

To be clear – not well.

First, during the Obama years, the Democrats lost 11 seats in the Senate, 62 in the House of Representatives, while also ceding 12 governorships and 958 seats in state legislatures. This, especially around 2010, allowed Republicans to take power in various state legislatures and redraw congressional districts in their favour.

And, of course, there is Trump’s electoral victory in 2016.

While pundits can debate the scale of Russian meddling, what is beyond doubt is that Hillary Clinton failed to energise voters. Just look to certain Bernie Sanders supporters, who in 2016 voted for the Vermont senator in the primaries, but then opted for Trump in the general election in crucial swing states.

The lesson is clear for Biden – take firm, progressive positions on policy and promote real change.


To start, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed serious faults in the US healthcare system concerning reserves, care, and planning. Biden, even if he does not come out for Medicare for All, can better lay out the details on his proposal for a public option that would make the country safe and better prepared for potential future crises.

Immigration reform, too, is needed for the 10-12 million people who lack legal status in the country. This means that in addition to seriously working on granting citizenship to undocumented people, Biden should consider calls for restructuring, perhaps even abolishing, ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement).

Policing reform is also a must, which should include supporting legislation that would make it easier to hold officers accountable, as well as advocate for demilitarising local law enforcement agencies and/or shifting resources from the police to services such as mental health, domestic violence, and homelessness.

Environmental and agricultural policies also need serious revision. This means embracing the Green New Deal, or at least parts of the resolution, which include not only the promotion of renewable energy, but also significant investment in local food systems and regenerative forms of farming.

Will these proposals – from immigration to the environment – be challenged and ridiculed by Trump? Yes, without a doubt.

But that is the point – years of caving to the opposition has let Republicans hijack the direction of US politics, effectively holding Democrats hostage to right-wing priorities.

Moreover, it would serve Biden well to tack left in terms of policy, if anything to drive turnout up among traditional Democratic constituencies. To take a real stand against police violence would be a gesture that the votes of African Americans are not to be taken for granted, but need to be earned. A full embrace of substantive healthcare reform, additionally, would speak to the millions of people that Obamacare left uninsured, or who feel insecure as the coronavirus continues to spread.

A nation in crisis on so many fronts demands clear, definitive stances on divisive issues. For too long, the Democrats have played it safe, fearing that adopting progressive positions would hurt their electoral chances. Biden can and should break with this past – not only for the good of the party – but also for a country that demands real change in this difficult and painful time.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.