By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
I have spent four decades in Washington, D.C. watching conservative Republicans manipulate the public and, where they could get away with it, whittle away, bit by bit, the regulation of industrial and financial entities. This has included labor and environmental protections, as well as government programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and welfare. And too many Democrats have allowed themselves to be pushed to the right rather than stand against that reactionary force.
It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Administration that brought us Social Security, welfare, and unemployment insurance for the elderly, the destitute, and those who have lost their jobs. Roosevelt legalized collective bargaining and initiated the minimum wage.
At a time when our nation was in the depths of the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal provided people with work through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Projects Administration (WPA). He saved the banking system and created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to protect depositors’ savings. Roosevelt’s liberal descendants brought us Medicare and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
All of these protections that enhanced our lives for many years have been, to one degree or another, either gutted or diluted to the quality of dishwater.
And I have been waiting four decades for the public to wise up—and for a modern-day FDR who would lead the fight to reestablish what has been lost. I had not expected Joe Biden, the moderate liberal, to be that successor to Roosevelt. But life is full of wonderful surprises—and President Joe Biden is one of them.
Like Roosevelt in his first 100 days, Biden is off and running. He began with setting a goal of 100 million COVID -19 vaccinations in 100 days, and is well ahead of schedule. The Congress has just passed, and Biden has just signed, the American Rescue Plan, his $1.9 trillion stimulus bill.
That plan provides funding of coronavirus testing and tracing; increases the size of the public health workforce, and funds vaccine distribution. Greatly heralded are the plan’s $1,400 stimulus checks, which will help alleviate the economic stress that COVID’s restrictions on life and work have caused.
But Biden’s legislation does far more than that. It is a comprehensive beginning on retrieving the Rooseveltian vision.
The plan is expected to cut overall poverty by one third and child poverty by one half through the extension of unemployment benefits, extension of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as SNAP, and an increased child tax credit.
In true Roosevelt fashion, Biden’s child tax credit is innovative, recognizing that children should not be deprived of essential needs because their parents are out of work or don’t earn enough to qualify for a tax benefit. Under Biden’s plan, parents will receive $300 monthly cash payments, allowing them to deal with day-to-day costs for essentials like food, without requiring they be employed or earn enough money to file a tax return. Though this relief currently is temporary, progressives in the Congress hope to make it permanent.
The legislation also bails out collapsing pension plans, thus securing for hundreds of thousands of retirees their pensions for the next few decades. It provides for emergency rental assistance, and relief for the homeless, as well as mortgage and homeownership assistance. It contains funds for infrastructure, and financial support for schools, colleges and child-care providers.
As expansive as The American Rescue Plan is, it has only been the beginning of Biden’s “Building Back Better.” Not even two months into Biden’s administration, the House of Representatives has passed seven additional important progressive bills:
The Equality Act (H.R.5), prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity;
The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (H.R. 842), overriding state right-to-work laws, setting tougher penalties for employer interference with union organizing, and giving contractors and temporary workers the right to collectively bargain;
The For the People Act (HR1), expanding voting registration, early voting, and voting by mail; limiting gerrymandering; and changing campaign finance laws to reduce the influence of money in politics;
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (HR4), restoring federal oversight the Supreme Court tossed out in 2013 in Shelby v. Holder. The John Lewis Act provides a new formula to decide what states have shown a pattern of discrimination, requires officials to publicly announce all voting changes at least 180 days before an election; and expands government authority to send federal observers to any jurisdiction where there may be a substantial risk of discrimination;
The Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021(HR8), requiring background checks on all gun sales and transfers;
The Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021 (HR 1446), extending the amount of time for background checks from three days to 20 days.
These bills must overcome a likely filibuster in the Senate, but they are, nevertheless, a rip-roaring start to a new Roosevelt-style progressive agenda.
Biden and Roosevelt had very different roots—Roosevelt, a scion of America’s patrician upper class; Biden, middle class to the core—but they share some important similarities of circumstance. Both men weathered personal adversities that appear to have given them a compassion for others’ troubles. Roosevelt moved forward despite polio that had left him unable to walk. Biden overcame a stutter, two aneurisms, and numerous family tragedies. Roosevelt had the warmth that comes with great charm; Biden has a warmth that emanates from his sincerity.
Both men came into office at times of extreme crisis. Roosevelt’s was the economic collapse creating the Great Depression. Biden’s has been a pandemic killing more than 400,000 Americans before he even entered office, and the national economic crisis resulting from that pandemic.
Roosevelt was accused of being a socialist for attempting to do what was necessary to save the country. Biden has likewise had that accusation thrown at him. But as reported by The New Yorker in July, 2020, Biden’s view is: “I’m kind of in a position that FDR was…What in fact FDR did was not ideological, it was completely practical.”
Both men even suffered a coup attempt soon after they became president. As we all know, the attempted coup against Biden took place on January 6, when the Capitol attackers tried to prevent counting of presidential electoral votes. The planned coup against Roosevelt by business and Wall Street interests faltered before it could be put into action because the man they chose to lead it—Major General Smedley Butler—exposed the plot instead.
As difficult as the country’s situation was in Roosevelt’s day, Biden faces a far more difficult political environment than Roosevelt did. FDR faced an uncooperative Supreme Court, but in his 1932 election he carried solid Democratic majorities to both the Senate and the House.
Though Biden has a majority in the House, he not only must deal with the Supreme Court’s right-wing majority, he must walk a 50-50 tightrope in the Senate, persuading conservative Democrats to vote with their party, and depending on his Vice President to break ties. Biden’s Senate must also find some way to overcome Republican abuse of the filibuster rule, and his Congress overall must find some way to deal with the disruptions by those in Congress who use their positions to continue support of the insurrectionists.
Dr. Martin Luther King famously said “…the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I have tremendous respect for Dr. King, and appreciate the tenacious idealism of his words. But I do not see that arc as bending towards justice. I see it as an eternal tug of war between greed and need—a thick, rough rope sometimes pulled towards justice, sometimes yanked in the other direction. With Biden and the Democratic House and Senate, we have the tightest grip on that rope that we have had since FDR’s day, but Mitch McConnell and his ilk are pulling strongly the other way. To bring all that Biden and the Democrats are setting in motion to fruition, we must reform the filibuster, and we must get more Democrats into the Senate. We had better grip that rope even more tightly and keep pulling hard.
Jessie Seigel is a fiction writer, an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. She has twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work. But, Seigel also had a long career as a government attorney, in which she honed her analytic skills. Of this double career, Seigel would say, “I guess my right and left brains are well balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.