As we turn to a new year, the spotlight shines on the new president and the new administration. Even as he assumes center stage in Washington, profound questions still remain about Joe Biden’s plans. His initial appointments have been solid, diverse, experienced and capable, drawn overwhelmingly from the established center of the party.
He has recognized that the nation faces crises of a scope similar to the Great Depression, calling for bold action. He has repeated his commitment to work across the aisle and seek bipartisan support, despite Republican legislators refusing even to recognize his victory. While recognizing the need for executive action, he has lectured civil rights leaders on the limits of his powers. As he prepares for what is likely to be a virtual inaugural, it is time for the president-elect to put his cards on the table.
What’s needed now is an aspirational agenda – an agenda that reveals the scope of action needed to meet the challenges we face, and that provides hope and galvanizes support. There are many sources to draw on. As Bernie Sanders said, Biden ran on the most progressive platform of any Democratic nominee in memory. The Poor People’s Campaign and the Congressional Progressive Caucus have put forth The People’s Agenda, providing a roadmap for the administration. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have detailed 100-day plans for the administration.
Biden ran largely by offering a return to sanity in contrast to the Orange Menace in the White House. Now it is time to speak to Americans about the scope of the crises he inherits and the first steps he will take to fulfill the promise that “help is on the way.”
COVID and the pandemic induced economic collapse pose the first test. The rescue package just passed by the Congress is too small to provide much more than a temporary life raft that is already leaking air. Biden should announce clearly that the vaccines will be provided free to all, and that distribution will be based on need – the most vulnerable first – not on privilege, connections or wealth.
The economic rescue package will need to be bolstered and extended, but more importantly, Biden should lay out his plan to make this economy work for working people once more. That should begin with a bold plan for rebuilding our decrepit infrastructure. This imperative, which should have bipartisan support, was Trump’s greatest broken promise. A bold plan will create millions of jobs while addressing the climate crisis with a focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy. Biden should describe the program in bold strokes and summon the Congress to meet the challenge.
The promise of jobs in rebuilding America should be accompanied by a broad workers bill of rights to ensure that workers share in the profits and productivity that they help to produce.
Begin with a call for a $15 minimum wage, a measure already passed by a supermajority of Florida voters, even as they voted to re-elect Donald Trump. Champion the Essential Workers Bill of Rights that guarantees a living wage, paid health care and sick leave, safety protections and more to essential workers. Call for a new era of worker organizing, providing both labor law reform legislation and executive orders to require federal contractors to respect the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, while giving priority to those without an extreme gulf between CEO and worker pay.
This should be combined with a call for bold reforms to make health care a right, not a privilege. Call on Congress to lower the eligibility age for Medicare to 50, and to cover children up to 25. Empower bulk negotiation on drug prices across the board. Use executive authority to set reasonable prices for essential drugs.
To fulfill his promise to address structural racism in our society, Biden could begin by reviving and strengthening the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to report on areas in dire need of reform. He could add to that a major initiative from the Department of Justice to negotiate reforms with police departments across the country. He could use his pardon power early to free those held on nonviolent drug offenses, particularly as marijuana becomes legal in more and more states. He can not only revive the protections for the DACA generation, but also launch immediately a review and reform of our immigration practices, even as he puts forth legislation for comprehensive immigration reform.
The election once more dramatized the need for democratic renewal. Biden should push Congress to strengthen the Voting Rights Act, end all secret money in politics, make registration automatic, and roll back the various voter suppression tactics that so scar our politics. He should push to limit the role of big money in our politics, and to bolster the power of small donations. Biden should crack down on the real swamp – the bog of lobbyists and fixers, of compromised revolving door regulators and political appointees that corrupt our government for their own profit.
This list can go on, of course, but clarity of intent is more important than comprehensiveness.
Biden must make it clear that he has a mandate and plans to use it. That the crises we face demand bold action. And that he will drive the change. Americans are looking for bold leadership. Biden must provide that from day one.
Jesse Jackson Sr. is an American civil rights activist, Baptist minister and politician. He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988.
Editor’s note: Leonard Pitts Jr. is on vacation. His column will return next week.
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