Joe Biden Might Not Be the Worst—and That Feels Weird to Say

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Culture & Conversation The Politics of Politics

Joe Biden Might Not Be the Worst—and That Feels Weird to Say

Imani Gandy

I resigned myself to voting for Joe Biden. About a week into his administration, I have to say I've been pleasantly surprised—"Sleepy Joe" means business.

“I want a Biden presidency like I want a brick to the face.”

That’s what I tweeted in May 2019, a few weeks after Biden announced his candidacy. To say I was unenthusiastic about a Biden presidency would be an understatement. Throughout the primary, I routinely urged Biden to drop out. I wanted a progressive president. Someone who would not only undo the damage that Trump wrought, but who would also be forward thinking. I was drawn to Elizabeth Warren’s nerdy energy. She was the person for the job, in my estimation.

But Joe Biden? No way.

“What’s so irritating is that it doesn’t seem like Joe Biden wants to be president. He just wants to have been president,” I tweeted in December 2019. And I believed it. His decision to jump into the race struck me as a self-aggrandizing and feckless attempt at relevance, considering he first ran for president in 1987, right around the time I was obsessing over Cary Elwes and Robin Wright in The Princess Bride.

Ultimately, I thought his candidacy was simply a reflection of vanity. He didn’t really want to put in the work that being president after Trump would require; the presidency was simply the last notch that he wanted to be able to etch onto his political bedpost.

But Biden became the nominee, and I resigned myself to voting for him. I was not happy. Nor was I optimistic. I assumed that he would just be a maintenance president. Someone to turn the clock back to 2016, but not necessarily someone who would move the country forward. And after he won the election, his chatter about the need for unity irritated me because I don’t want to unify with Trump supporters nor do I think I should have to.

Well, it’s been less than a week of the Biden-Harris administration, and I have to say, I have been pleasantly surprised. For a man who is 78 years old and has been in government since government was invented—who compromised with segregationists and fought for their cause by sponsoring a bill that, according to civil rights attorney and then-director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Jack Greenberg, would limit courts’ power to order busing as a way to desegregate schools—Biden has charged out of the gate swinging when it comes to the rights of people that the Trump administration either outright ignored or sadistically antagonized. He has done exactly what he should do to set the tone for this new administration, and if he keeps up this pace—and if progressives keep up the pressure—Biden has an opportunity to become a transformative president.

Part of that transformativeness will be a response to the white supremacy and politics of white grievance that were the hallmark of Trump’s shitshow of a presidency. Certainly the most lauded executive actions that Biden took during his first week were simply a reversal of Trump’s dangerous policies:

  • reversed the Muslim travel ban;
  • disbanded the 1776 Commission, which Trump formed as a response to the 1619 Project and which released a truly abhorrent report on MLK Day this year that attempted to downplay the severity of chattel slavery in this country. According to the report, slavery wasn’t really that bad and you’re not a patriot if you say otherwise. Besides, everyone was doing it.
  • ended the ban on transgender people serving in the military and ordered that the records of any troops affected by the ban be corrected, which means that dishonorable discharges could be upgraded to honorable;
  • restored collective bargaining power and worker protections for federal workers, and laid the foundation for a $15 minimum wage;
  • ended the U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization, and appointed Dr. Anthony Fauci to head the U.S. delegation at WHO;
  • set us on a path to rejoin the Paris climate accord;
  • canceled the Keystone pipeline and directed federal agencies to review Trump’s actions on the environment, which included things like allowing hunters to shoot hibernating bears. (Yes, seriously.)
  • reversed ICE expansion under Trump and halted all deportations for 100 days; and
  • halted construction of Trump’s absurd border wall.

And those are just the reversals of Trump’s policies. Biden also:

  • fortified DACA to protect DREAMers;
  • reaffirmed the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County that Title VII prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity;
  • extended the moratorium on foreclosures and evictions until March 31;
    extended student loan payment deferrals until September 30; and
  • issued a slew of orders designed to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control, including a mandate requiring masks on federal property.

When it comes to health care, this week Biden is rescinding the global “gag rule” (also known as the Mexico City policy), which bars funds from going to NGOs that promote or even talk about abortion. He is calling for a review of the Title X family planning program which, hopefully, will lead to rescission of the domestic gag rule and the restoration of federal funding for Planned Parenthood. And he is expected to take action on Medicaid and initiate a special open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act. He has also committed to repealing the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds from paying for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.

And he hasn’t even been president for a week.

These are not the actions of a president who plans on sleepwalking for the next four years, nor of someone who, contrary to my original cynicism, just wants to have been president. It looks like “Sleepy Joe” means business.

During his victory speech on November 6, Biden said that the 81 million people who voted for the Biden-Harris ticket had given it “a mandate for action on COVID, the economy, climate change, systemic racism.” Thus far, his executive actions demonstrate that he takes that mandate seriously.

More specifically, he said that he had a mandate “to achieve racial justice and root out systemic racism in this country” and his inaugural address suggests that he takes that mandate seriously as well; in his speech, he referred to the “rise of political extremism, white supremacy, and domestic terrorism” as something to be confronted and defeated.

The actions that Joe Biden is taking are encouraging, and if he keeps up this pace, he could prove to be far more than the maintenance president I presumed he would be.

It’s the first time that I can recall any president—including Obama—naming and shaming white supremacy and calling out systemic racism. And while it is hard to square this new Biden with the Biden of old—the one who is directly responsible for the mass incarceration of Black people as a result of his work to pass the the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994—it is nevertheless noteworthy that racial justice is on his list of priorities, and he seems committed to it. It is critical that he seems to be evolving on issues of racial justice, even at the ripe age of 78.

And that evolution is reflected in some of the executive actions that he is planning related to “equity,” like reinstating Obama-Biden administration policies governing the transfer of military-style equipment to local law enforcement; directing the Department of Justice to take steps to improve prison conditions and begin to eliminate the use of private prisons; and disavowing discrimination against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, “particularly in light of rhetoric around the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The fact that Obama was hamstrung when it came to commenting on race, by virtue of the fact that he is Black, was likely not lost on Biden. In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal, Obama said that if he had a son, that son would look like Trayvon Martin, and conservative white people lost their collective shit. Could it be that Biden uses his whiteness to make white folks uncomfortable? I hope so. It’s noteworthy that Biden was vice president to the first Black president and is president to the first Black vice president. There’s a symmetry there that is remarkable.

If Biden continues along this path, it could mean good things for Black people, especially after four years of Donald Trump dismissing, attacking, and mocking Black people out of one side of his mouth while declaring “Come on, what do you have to lose” out of the other.

There are areas of disagreement between Biden and progressives, to be sure. Progressives want universal health care (although there’s plenty of fighting on how to do it). A growing number of progressives want Biden to wipe out student debt entirely. And almost every progressive wants that $2,000 stimulus check and to make those checks retroactive to the beginning of the pandemic.

I want all of those things. I also want Biden to unpack the courts by expanding the federal judiciary and adding as many as 20 new justices to the Supreme Court. (If that sounds bonkers, read Elie Mystal’s take on it in the Nation—he’ll make a believer out of you.) And it is practically a foregone conclusion that progressives, particularly anti-imperialist progressives, are going to find much of Biden’s foreign policy to be immoral. That’s the nature of being anti-war in an imperialist country that traffics in death and destruction in the Global South.

But thus far, the actions that Biden is taking with respect to domestic policy are encouraging, and if he keeps up this pace, he could prove to be far more than the maintenance president I presumed he would be. He very well could be a transformative president. And in the post-Trump era, that is exactly what we need.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of people who voted for the Biden-Harris ticket. The ticket received 81 million votes.