Biden’s First 100 Days: The New Terrain

MAPA Newsletter February 2021

President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden

by Cole Harrison and Jackie King

After a tumultuous year of global pandemic, economic crisis, racial justice protests, and a violent insurrectionary attempt to overturn the American presidential election, President Biden’s first days in office offer some reason for hope. Progressives should be proud of what we have accomplished so far, even as we prepare for the fights ahead. The broad-based mass movement that worked to defeat Trump is now demanding that Joe Biden and Democratic elected officials deliver on their campaign promises.

Progressive organizations have been meeting with Biden’s team for months to put forward their agenda. Leading members of the Sanders campaign and other movement groups were invited into Biden’s task forces over the summer to help shape the Democratic platform. More recently, the Poor People’s Campaign and 37 other organizations joined the Congressional Progressive Caucus as it put forward a “People’s Agenda” in January that outlined their goals.

So far, the Biden people seem to be listening on domestic issues, but less so on foreign policy. They say they have learned from the mistakes of the Obama administration of going “too small” in 2009, when they sacrificed a robust and timely economic recovery and the well-being of millions of desperate people, as they pursued a few Republican votes in an attempt to secure a bipartisan deal. After whittling down the stimulus and passing a health care bill without a public option and with benefits that didn’t kick in for two years, Democrats were trounced in the midterms.

This time around, Democrats are saying they understand the need for big, bold programs to meet the emergency of the moment, measures that will have an immediate positive impact on people’s lives. To fight the Republicans’ obstructionism, Senate Democrats will need to use all the levers at their disposal. One of those tools is the parliamentary process known as reconciliation, which requires only a 51-vote simple majority to pass a bill, in order to get around the filibuster, which can stop any bill that lacks a 60-vote supermajority.

Bold Domestic Agenda

Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package to address the Covid 19 pandemic and the economic crisis, while flawed, is a strong start. It includes billions for Covid testing, tracing, and vaccinations; provides $1400 checks to individuals, extends unemployment benefits supplements to September, beefs up food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit, expands the child tax credit substantially, provides billions to open schools safely, extends the evictions moratorium until March, and calls for a $15/hour minimum wage. But Obama’s economic policy chief Larry Summers, The New York Times, and other opinion-makers have already started a familiar drumbeat warning that $1.9 trillion is too much to spend on economic recovery — even as over 10 million remain unemployed.

Carlos E. Rojas Rodriguez confronts Joe Biden about the candidate’s stance on deportations, November 2019 (AP / Meg Kinnard)
Carlos E. Rojas Rodriguez confronts Joe Biden about the candidate’s stance on deportations, November 2019 (AP / Meg Kinnard)

Nine of the 17 Executive Orders the new president signed on Inauguration Day sought to undo some of the worst aspects of Trump’s immigration policies: Biden declared a 100-day moratorium on deportations, cancelled the Muslim ban, halted work on the border wall, reinstated and fortified the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, took measures to reunite families, and talked about a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented. He increased the number of refugees allowed into the US to 125,000, up from Trump’s punitive limit of 15,000. On climate policy, Biden reentered the Paris Climate Agreement, yanked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline (but not the Dakota Access one), and set forth an ambitious plan and infrastructure for a coordinated response to the climate crisis, including a cabinet-level position for John Kerry as international climate envoy.   Assuming the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package passes Congress by March, Biden plans to introduce a major Green New Deal Lite package of climate response measures in late spring.

On racial equity, Biden announced an end to use of private prisons for corrections (but not for ICE), action to redress racism in federal housing policies, and promised greater respect for Native nations’ sovereignty.  But he did not, as expected, announce the end of the 1033 police militarization program, nor measures to combat voter suppression maneuvers and increase ballot access.

Unfortunately, Biden’s American Rescue Plan doesn’t go far enough. It offers only one-time relief checks instead of ongoing monthly support for as long as is needed. During a true economic crisis, working class and poor people, many of whom are losing their jobs and homes, need the assurance of continued assistance. Another disturbing sign: Biden has said he is open to a disastrous proposal to impose stricter eligibility requirements on relief checks than even Trump did, earlier in the pandemic. As Bernie Sanders, new chair of the Senate Budget Committee and many others have pointed out, that would hurt millions of families and cause enormous confusion and resentment.

A Familiar Hawkish Foreign Policy

While Biden’s domestic initiatives show promise, his foreign policy moves are cause for much greater concern. His top appointments – Antony Blinken as secretary of state, Avril Haines as director of national intelligence, and Jake Sullivan as national security advisor – have all played significant roles in military interventions, used their Obama-era government experience to cycle into profitable positions in the private sector, and espouse a vision of US world leadership backed by military might.

Biden has extended the New START Treaty with Russia for the maximum five years, following through on an Obama arms control commitment.  He should go much farther and declare a No First Use policy, re-sign the Open Skies Treaty, suspend expensive and dangerous new weapons systems under development, and in particular cancel the contract to build a new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The modest positive step of the New START extension shows that Biden is trying to resurrect a US-led foreign policy—including multilateral collaboration with the EU, UK, and Japan against Russia and China—that once was upheld by both parties but was seriously damaged by Trump.

Biden has made clear he will continue a tough China policy, continuing a military buildup on land, sea, air and in space to try to confine China to its territory, warning China on the South China Sea and Taiwan, criticizing China on human rights, and indicating that Trump’s trade war will continue, while his administration describes China as a “competitor” rather than Trump’s “adversary.”

The president declared his commitment to “end the war in Yemen” and to end sales of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia and UAE, and he restored permission to humanitarian groups to deliver aid in Houthi-controlled territory. But at the same time, he said he would continue to sell defensive weapons to Saudi and UAE without making the distinction clear, and indicated that he will continue the Israel/Saudi/UAE/US alliance which became open US policy under Trump.

Biden has said that he will reenter the Iran nuclear deal, but only after Iran stops enriching uranium beyond the limits imposed by the original agreement. Yet it was the US under Trump that pulled out of the agreement, which had been arranged after long and excruciating negotiation and agreed to by five other countries. Biden needs to move quickly to cancel the harsh sanctions on Iran and reenter the agreement, since hardliners could very well assume office in Iranian elections in June, making the prospect of a renewed agreement at that point unlikely.

On Latin America, Biden signaled that he will continue Obama and Trump’s policy of regime change in Venezuela by recognizing Juan Guaidó as president.

Mass. Peace Action’s Work

Yemen Day of Action, January 2021
Yemen Day of Action, January 2021

Mass. Peace Action is pushing for more action.  We joined with MIT Radius and other advocacy groups to organize a conference on the danger of nuclear war Jan. 23 (see video at and article elsewhere in this issue) and were among those who organized six rallies across Massachusetts on Jan. 22, the day the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons went into effect.  We are planning a conference on No First Use to be held in May.

We joined in a Yemen Day of Action Jan. 25, when actions were held at the State House, Andover and Northampton to press Biden to end the war. We are pressing for action to return to the Iran deal. We are getting out the word with multiple webinars on Yemen, Iran, Syria and other US wars, and we are organizing delegations to meet with members of Congress and push for commitments to help. We are filing bills in the State House to raise peace issues (see article elsewhere in this issue).

We joined with others to organize a “Where do we Go from Here” progressive unity conference Dec 5-6 at which Sen. Ed Markey, The Nation correspondent John Nichols, activists Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Rahsaan Hall, and many more, outlined how we can work together to build the progressive agenda.  Eight groups that organized the conference are meeting together and planning how we can launch a Massachusetts Progressive Alliance to better coordinate the peace and progressive movement.

—Cole Harrison is Mass. Peace Action’s executive director. Jackie King is a Board member and newsletter editor.