Courtney: Biden’s first year in review, and a creative look ahead to year two

Where Biden succeeded, where he failed and what to do before the midterms.


by Zach Courtney

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a column on what President Biden needed to do during his time in office, titled Biden needs to be FDR, not Clinton or Obama. To few people’s surprise, Biden has failed to live up to the FDR, New Deal-era standard for what a progressive president should be and do.

Biden’s first year in office certainly had some positives. He put the middle finger up to the military-industrial complex and ended the war in Afghanistan. He passed a major COVID relief bill that included $1,400 stimulus checks and a one-year expansion to the child tax credit. He did what former President Trump never could by passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Still, there are many negatives to discuss. “Build Back Better,” Biden’s proposal that includes money for social infrastructure, expanding the safety net and combating climate change, seems unlikely to pass due to Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema’s (D-AZ) opposition, meaning the end of the child tax credit expansion. Health care — either a single-payer system (what I want) or a public option (what Biden supposedly wants) — seems to have vanished from the public discourse in Washington.

To Biden’s credit, in a presser last week he clarified that he is not Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT). He’s right — he’s not — but maybe, to a certain extent, that is part of the problem. Sanders is a more popular Democrat than Biden is, despite 1) not technically being a Democrat and 2) being subject to much more critical media than Biden is.

To be fair, Congress’ issues shouldn’t be blamed on Biden. But like FDR, Biden could and should do more to prove to Americans that he’s doing everything he can to help us. That’s how a president becomes popular and forces their own party to do as they say.

With the roadblocks of Manchin and Sinema making progress through Congress unlikely, the Biden Administration needs to be creative in using its executive authority to 1) increase popularity ahead of the midterms, 2) leverage this popularity into getting Sinema and Manchin to pass some meaningful legislation, and 3) help people (duh!).

Biden could…

Cancel Student Loan Debt
Through the Higher Education Act of 1965, advocates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) argue the Secretary of Education has the authority to cancel all federal student loan debt. This power has already been exercised to some extent; federal student loan payments were first paused under the Trump administration, and this policy has continued under Biden’s administration as well. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have used the Higher Education Act to forgive certain borrowers’ student loan debt in certain circumstances, but the legality of widespread cancellation remains debatable.

Still, widespread cancellation — whatever the dollar amount might be — would be decent policy and great politics. Young voters are uninspired by Democrats today; a good way to change that would be to (at least try!) cancelling $20,000 of their student loan debt.

Legalize Marijuana
For regular readers of my column, my stance on this is no surprise. The federal legalization of marijuana is long overdue, and President Biden could take this issue into his own hands and effectively legalize it through executive order by pardoning all non-violent federal marijuana offenders. Next, the Biden Administration could change marijuana from its ridiculous status as a Schedule I drug to a more reasonable Schedule III drug. This would allow for more medical research, remove unnecessary federal restrictions and allow for the eventual full legalization of marijuana at the federal level.

Expand Medicare to All
Most have heard of my first two proposals, but not this one. In the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare), there is a provision that allows the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to expand Medicare to anyone subject to an “environmental exposure.” Though this provision was written with Libby, Mont. in mind — a small town exposed to asbestos whose residents now have Medicare for life — it could apply to any situation where the Secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or HHS declares a public health emergency. We just so happen to be in a pandemic and are under a public health emergency. The Biden Administration could temporarily extend Medicare coverage to everyone who has been infected by COVID-19, or they could push to temporarily cover all Americans through Medicare.

Now, I’m not naïve, and I’m not a constitutional lawyer. I understand that the constitutionality of these three proposals (to varying degrees) might be questionable. But maybe that’s part of the political appeal. Ahead of the midterms this November, Democrats need to make one thing clear: are they on the side of the people, or are they on the side of corporations, the prison-industrial complex and the pharmaceutical industry? Are they doing everything in their power — even some things that might reach out of their power — to help the little guy out?

Biden’s first year in office has been… fine. There have been positives, but there have been negatives as well. Biden and the Democrats have dismal poll numbers and a bad outlook in the 2022 midterms. People don’t go back for a “fine” burger, a “fine” movie or a “fine” glass of wine, and they won’t vote en masse in November for a “fine” President Biden’s Democratic Party. Ahead of the midterms, Biden and the Democrats need to be creative in their use of power to generate a popular, FDR-like movement for regular people. If they don’t, get ready for a shellacking in November.