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The Way Forward: Can the Left Push Biden to Be a Transformative President Like LBJ, FDR & Lincoln?

StoryJanuary 20, 2021
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We look at the path forward for the Biden-Harris administration and the role of social movements with political strategist Waleed Shahid and author and analyst Michael Eric Dyson. Shahid, spokesperson for the progressive political action committee Justice Democrats, says Biden could be “one of the most transformative presidents” in U.S. history if he acts boldly. “But it will take an immense amount of pressure on Joe Biden, on the political system, on the political class for him to get there,” says Shahid.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’d like to bring in Waleed Shahid into the conversation. Waleed, on Trump’s last day and Joe Biden’s first day as president, your message today on behalf of Justice Democrats? What do you believe should be the key priorities for Biden’s first 100 days in office?

WALEED SHAHID: Well, we are allowing ourselves to feel happy today, before we get to work to deliver results for the American people and deliver relief for the American people. And I think this moment is a once-in-a-generation moment for the United States of America, that Joe Biden really could be known historically as one of the most transformative presidents in American history, like a Lincoln, like an FDR, like an LBJ. But it will take an immense amount of pressure on Joe Biden, on the political system, on the political class for him to get there, because Joe Biden has never been that kind of transformative figure throughout his political history. He’s been more of a centrist who kind of, you know, puts his finger in the air and tries to figure out where the direction of the country is going.

But I think because of the pandemic, because of the Black Lives Matter movement that took hold this summer, the largest Black freedom struggle in our country’s history since the 1960s, there is an immense amount of — the political window is so wide to take bold action and deliver solutions at the scale of the crisis. So, you know, we have to be optimistic, because we want to see Joe Biden deliver on the four issues that he says himself that he has a mandate on: on the pandemic, on the economy, on the climate crisis and on systemic racism.

And, you know, he has to get that through Congress. There’s lots of questions about how he will whip the Senate caucus to get in line, how he will — how he could or could not eliminate the filibuster. But it is a time for Joe Biden to deliver results for the multiracial majority that delivered the presidency to him, and not co-govern with Mitch McConnell or his insurrectionist Republican Party, that has done whatever it can to enshrine minority rule in this country.

And so, on the announcement that Joe Biden has given on his agenda on COVID relief, on immigration, on the climate crisis, we are optimistic that this is — you know, this could be the most progressive administration we’ve seen since President Johnson. But it will take a lot of work to get there. He’s not going to — it’s going to take the work of progressives, of social movements to really get it done.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, on that note, you mentioned Johnson and the movement of the '60s. I was a young high school and college student back then, during the LBJ presidency. And people did not expect a lot from LBJ back then. But he ended up producing a remarkable record: Medicare and Medicaid, voting rights, the Fair Housing Act, the Clean Air Act, the last major immigration reform, the Public Broadcasting Act. All of this came about, it seems to me, because, one, Johnson knew how to translate that social movement's demands into legislation, and, more importantly, he knew how to pass the legislation. It seems to me that Biden may have these same two characteristics of having that experience of how to get legislation passed. And from what we can see from the initial proposals, he’s pretty well on the way to getting out of the gate pretty quickly the stimulus plan, as you mentioned, the $15-an-hour wage, the $10,000 forgiveness for student loans. What are the prospects of him being able to get this legislation through, do you think?

WALEED SHAHID: I think the prospects are high. I think Senate Democrats are largely united on getting things done for the presidency. I mean, the next nine months are key because of how slim the majority is for Democrats. You know, the 2022 midterms will likely start by the time we get to September, and people will be less likely to want to be in Washington to govern, will be back home campaigning. And so, we have no time to waste.

I think there are many people around Joe Biden who have learned some of the lessons from the Obama administration, that they should not spend many hours, many days, many weeks inviting moderate Republicans to the White House to waste their time negotiating over key parts of the Democratic legislative agenda. That is a complete waste of everyone’s time. This is what happened with — even President Obama admits this in his memoirs, that the amount of time given to Olympia Snowe or Chuck Grassley just was not worth it at the end of the day.

And, you know, one of the biggest progressive achievements that have happened, that we’ve kind of all — we don’t even know is happening, is how Joe Biden and his administration has basically no longer — has stopped worrying about the deficit, something that haunted even President Obama’s recovery package. This is a huge sign of a progressive realignment happening in the Democratic Party. Even Senator Joe Manchin, one of the — the most conservative Democrat, is saying he would be in favor of a $3 trillion, $4 trillion infrastructure package that tackled child care and hopefully will also tackle the climate crisis.

And so, you know, like you’re saying, Abraham Lincoln was not abolitionist, FDR was not a trade unionist, LBJ was not a civil rights activist, but these presidents understood the ground of history moving beneath their feet and seized the moment that the movements allowed them to take up. And the conditions, the historical conditions in there, at the time the country faced, they really seized that moment. And I think President Biden has people around him who I think will be able to guide our country through this path. And the progressives in Congress are also much larger in number than they were in 2009, so there are people to hold him accountable legislatively, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Waleed Shahid, spokesperson for Justice Democrats, and professor Michael Eric Dyson. And we’re going to continue our conversation after this break.


AMY GOODMAN: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” by Taylor Swift. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Yes, today is Inauguration Day. In 150 years, no president has not attended, outgoing president, this inauguration, but that’s what Trumps are doing. They’ve left for the Andrews Air Force Base. And interestingly, as people are gathered there — he sent out many, many invitations — the music that’s blaring is “Macho Man.” And Antonia Juhasz tweeted, “'Gloria' is playing at Joint Base Andrews, 'greeting' Trump’s arrival there. It’s all his people there, supposedly, but the words, 'if everybody wants you, why isn't anybody calling?… all the voices in your head....’” Just some of the scene today before this historic inauguration.

We’re speaking with Michael Eric Dyson and Waleed Shahid, spokesperson for Justice Democrats.

I’m wondering, Waleed Shahid, if you can talk about what went on behind the scenes for the Biden appointments, to give a sense — very few people have insight into the inner workings — if you feel the progressives have an upper hand here? And now with this series of executive orders that are going to be issued today, everything from stop funding the wall to, well, not an executive order, but the eight-year immigration plan that says that the 11 million people here undocumented, there will be an eight-year plan for citizenship — some are saying, with the Democrats controlling the presidency, the Senate, the House, why does he go to eight years?

WALEED SHAHID: Yeah, I am not happy with the appointments that Joe Biden has made. I think that, largely, the appointments, while they’re, on the whole, better than the appointments that the Obama administration made — for example, Rahm Emanuel did not receive an appointment from this administration. People like Timothy Geithner, Arne Duncan, these were some of the most hostile forces to progressives in the Obama administration. Many of those types of people are not in this administration. Still, you know, 40% of Congress — 40% of Democrats in the House of Representatives are members of the Progressive Caucus. Joe Biden’s administration is nowhere near that number of progressives.

That said, progressives were able to win some appointments to the administration, most notably on the National Economic Council. His team of economic advisers are members of the progressive movement: Bharat Ramamurti, someone who has dedicated his career to anti-corporate consolidation; Heather Boushey; Jared Bernstein. These are progressive economic thinkers, people who stopped worrying about the deficit a long time ago, focused their careers on economic inequality, systemic racism. And his climate team is also very aggressive. Gina McCarthy is someone that progressives were hoping to get onto that team. People like — the appointment of Ali Zaidi and John Kerry as special climate positions is positive sign. And Xavier Becerra for health and human services is also good. But, you know, it’s a mixed bag.

I do think that, at the end of the day, this is going to be a fight. You know, there are key issues on the table still on how Joe Biden plans to get his agenda through Congress. While the executive orders are a good sign — his positions on immigration are much more positive than what we thought we were going to get — he will have to confront a Senate that overempowers white, rural, Republican states to have a say in what the majority wants to do. And he will have to fight to — and he will have to fight to create a democracy that allows 51 senators to pass something.

And that can be done through eliminating the filibuster. He’ll have to do a democracy package to get D.C. statehood through. These are major civil rights issues that Joe Biden will be tested on in his first nine months in order for the multiracial majority that elected Joe Biden to actually be able to govern and not be blocked by senators who represent 25% of the country. And it is unclear whether Joe Biden plans to do that, whether Senator Schumer plans to do that. But I think that is going to be one of the major tests of the soul of the Biden administration, is how serious they are in order to make our democracy function and in order for the majority to be able to govern, without a party that emboldened an insurrection to have a say in what that majority does.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring back Michael Eric Dyson into the conversation. Michael, when Joe Biden first ran for president, he said he was doing it because of a moral crisis after the racial violence in Charlottesville. Are you hopeful that he will bring about racial reconciliation? And what would you recommend are the concrete steps that he needs to take?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, thanks for inviting me back in.

There’s no question that I think Joe Biden fancies himself, considers himself, understands himself as a healing racial force and that he can foster the kind of transformative racial practice that will be a direct rejection of the vicious politics of division that have been perpetuated by and practiced by the Trump administration with its biggest megaphone and its loudest bullhorn in the hands and possessions of the president of the United States of America, so that Teddy Roosevelt’s notion of a bully pulpit here was exemplified in the bullying pulpit of Donald Trump against the most progressive forces of racial justice, as well as racial reconciliation in the nation. So, Joe Biden has understood for a long time in his own career of his intimate embrace of and relationship to, say, particular Black communities in Delaware, the stories he tells about what shaped his understanding of the world, his relationship to Barack Obama and defending him throughout this eight-year tenure in the Oval Office. So, Joe Biden, along with his own inclination to embrace civil rights issues and ideas, puts him in good position to be able to do so.

In terms of concrete measures, obviously, just not standing up and harming people through corrosive rhetoric is extremely important. It is not merely symbolic. It’s the degree to which he is an avatar of race’s potential to bring us together, or at least to talk about issues of justice, that may divide us initially, but ultimately we can rally around. Unity is a bridge. Justice is the destination. We don’t worship the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We celebrate John Lewis and the other — [Amelia] Boynton and the other great Americans who crossed that bridge and ultimately fostered and forged a coalition that resulted in the passage of civil rights legislation, and in this case, the Voting Rights Act. So, unity is an ideal, but it’s the means, it’s the instrument. The goal is justice.

And so, what Mr. Waleed Shahid has been speaking about in terms of the proposals of Justice Democrats, the organization politically of the ideas we have, I think, are externally exemplary. And the beauty of it is that Joe Biden can be pushed, that Kamala Harris can be pushed, that we have in place now figures who have been receptive to progressive ideas about social transformation, that they can be appealed to, that even if one has disagreements about this particular selection on the Cabinet or not, that the overarching ideals that they embrace allow them, grant them permission, to be moved, to be motivated, to be talked to, to be appealed to, to be cajoled into doing something that is equally important as the ideals we have, with the practices that measure up to them.

In terms of on-the-ground stuff, you know, we’ve got a criminal justice system. The prison-industrial complex is huge. The private investment in that has extracted enormous advantage and economic benefit for a few people, while the masses of people continue to suffer. So, the disproportionate numbers of people of color who continue to be nonviolent drug offenders who are still locked up in prison, got to do something about that. The degree to which the criminal justice system manifests itself in the lethal interactions between police people and ordinary citizens, Black citizens, that is huge, because nothing that my dear friend here speaks about, nothing that I speak about — both of us guests on your tremendous show — will be in order, can be in place, if you ain’t alive, so that the physical assault upon the bodies of Black and Brown and other peoples of color by the police has to be dealt with, and it has to be a national priority.

And we can have, I think, insightful arguments about defunding the police, on the one hand, or reforming the police, on the other, and we can say that the reforms clearly hasn’t worked, that community control of policing hasn’t yet yielded a payoff that results in the protection and preservation of Black and Brown and other life. So, the reality is, we can have that vigorous conversation and talk about reassigning funds from the police departments with these unions, which are out of order, unions which have — police unions, which have extraordinary power and extraordinary will and also extraordinary coffers, that reinforces a kind of racist denial of self-examination of many of these police departments, which become fiefdoms of hostility toward citizens who pay taxes, and Black citizens, in particular, who continue to die and be traumatized in disproportionate fashion.

But also the disparities in education. When kids are 7 and 8 and 9 years old being kicked out of school, when Black kids and Indigenous kids, in particular, are being put off the roll, you what? You feed them into detention. Detention becomes a feeder into jail. Jail becomes a warehouse for prison. So, when we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, that’s not just a cute phrase generated as a slogan among progressives; that is a description of the mechanics of horror and trauma upon vulnerable Black life.

And then, dealing with the COVID-19—

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: COVID-19 is extremely important. Got to deal with that, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us, Michael Eric Dyson, political analyst, now a professor at Vanderbilt University, and Waleed Shahid, spokesperson for Justice Democrats. We’ll link your piece in The Nation, “A Blueprint for Social Movements During the Biden Presidency.”

To watch the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris today, visit It begins around 11:00 Eastern time. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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