While the anti-democracy crusaders in the Republican Party are drawing headlines, President Biden has resolutely refused to engage with the craziness and has instead continued to move forward at a pace that feels remarkable after years of what seemed to be governmental inaction on matters ordinary people care about.
Pressed again today to speak about Republican congress members who are in the news for their antisocial behavior, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki refused to comment. “We don’t want to elevate conspiracy theories further in the briefing room, so I’m going to leave it at that,” she said.
The White House has also declined to comment on Congress, taking the constitutional position that the president should stay in the executive branch’s lane and let the legislative branch handle its own affairs.
Instead, Biden is moving his agenda forward quickly. He has signed at least 33 executive actions that direct the members of the executive branch on how they should implement laws. In addition to the military, the executive branch has more than 4 million people in it, and it includes the State Department, the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Interior Department, and so on—a lot of people in a lot of positions.
The breadth of the executive branch is enabling Biden to turn the direction of the government by coordinating changes across a number of departments. So, for example, in an article in the New Yorker, environmentalist Bill McKibben called out Wednesday, January 27, as “the most remarkable day in the history of America’s official response to the climate crisis…. The Biden Administration took a series of coordinated actions that, considered together, may well mark the official beginning of the end of the fossil-fuel era.”
McKibben notes that Biden adjusted rules in the Justice Department, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency, and involved the Pentagon by making climate change a national-security priority. He also asked the Secretary of Agriculture to confer with farmers and ranchers on how to encourage adoption of “climate-smart” agricultural practices. Anticipating the usual accusations that ending the fossil-fuel industry will cost jobs, he explicitly tied jobs to the new measures, ordering new, American-made, electric vehicles for the government and promising “good-paying” union jobs in construction, manufacturing, engineering and the skilled-trades as the nation switches to clean energy.
Biden is using executive orders to undercut the partisanship that has ground Congress to a halt for the past several years. While Biden’s predecessor tended to use executive actions to implement quite unpopular policies, Biden is using them to implement policies that most Americans actually like but which could never make it through Congress, where Republicans hold power disproportionate to their actual popularity.
According to a roundup by polling site FiveThirtyEight, Biden’s executive actions cover issues that people want to see addressed. Eighty-three percent of Americans—including 64% of Republicans—support a prohibition on workplace discrimination over sexual identification, 77% (including 52% of Republicans) want the government to focus on racial equity, 75% want the government to require masks on federal property, and 68% like the continued suspension of federal student loan repayments. A majority of Americans also favor rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accords, and so on.
Republicans are insisting that Biden is not practicing the unity he promised in his campaign, but here’s the interesting thing: work by political scientists Dr. Shana Gadarian and Dr. Bethany Albertson shows that most Americans actually agree on problems and solutions so long as politicians do not take on those issues as partisan ones. But as soon as politicians adopt a partisan stance on an issue, voters polarize over it. So it is possible that by keeping these issues out of the current partisanship in Congress and handling them from the White House, Biden is doing exactly what he promised: creating unity. He is also making Americans feel like the government is doing something for them again.
This attempt to avoid partisan polarization will be tested by his determination to pass a new, $1.9 trillion economic aid package through Congress. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, the former chair of the Federal Reserve and the chair of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors, has urged a fast injection of stimulus into the economy after it slowed down significantly at the end of 2020. Republicans have expressed concern at the passage of another large spending bill, but some are willing to negotiate, especially since the Democrats can pass a bill without them through a process called reconciliation (it will almost certainly be significantly pared down from this first version).
Today, as he went to the Walter Reed hospital to visit wounded soldiers, Biden said, "I support passing COVID relief with support from Republicans if we can get it…. But the COVID relief has to pass. No ifs, ands or buts." Psaki said that the White House would not agree to breaking the package up and passing only the parts the Republicans like. "But the size and the scope of the package – this is the legislative process, this is democracy at work now."
The Democrats’ hand has likely been strengthened this week by the media frenzy over the so-called “GameStop short squeeze,” in which hedge fund managers got squeezed by ordinary investors driving up the price of the stock of a video game retailer so that the hedge funds could not cover short sales. Investment firms promptly cried foul, only to be greeted with derision, since it is not at all clear that their own stock purchases have a better effect on the markets than those of the smaller investors, and since they made huge money betting on the Covid-19 crisis. Observers see the short squeeze as a populist attack on unscrupulous Wall Street types.
While the entire story behind the short squeeze is not yet clear, it does already have a political meaning. The GameStop story reinforced the growing sense that the system has been rigged for the wealthy. People from across the political spectrum are demanding more thorough regulation of the stock market, a dramatic cultural change.
It didn’t help that Leon Cooperman, a hedge fund trader worth $2.5 billion, took to CNBC to vent his fury. “The reason the market is doing what it’s doing is, people are sitting at home, getting their checks from the government, basically trading for no commissions and no interest rates,” he said, referring to relief for people thrown out of work by the pandemic.
With calls for unity in the air, Cooperman offered his own definition. Democrats’ suggestion that the rich should pay their “fair share” of taxes is “bullsh*t,” he said. “It’s just a way of attacking wealthy people, and you know I think it’s inappropriate…. We all got to work together and pull together.”
Shana Kushner Gadarian and Bethany Albertson, “Anxiety, Immigration, and the Search for Information,” Political Psychology 35 (April 2014): 133-164.