As President Biden marks one year in office, we speak with former four-time presidential candidate Ralph Nader and The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel, who say Biden has failed so far to sell his agenda to the American people and bring about the transformative policy he campaigned on — from quelling the pandemic to passing his landmark Build Back Better legislation. The two also critique the U.S. mainstream press for asking “war-inciting questions,” with Nader saying “the self-censorship of the press is overwhelming.”
AMY GOODMAN: We spend the rest of the hour looking at Biden’s agenda so far, after he entered office reeling from the violent January 6th insurrection and in the middle of a deadly pandemic, is now facing a new surge in COVID-19, among other challenges.
We’re joined by two guests. Ralph Nader, longtime consumer advocate, corporate critic, a four-time presidential candidate, he’s the author of many books, including Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think. And continuing with us, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editorial director and publisher of The Nation magazine, columnist for The Washington Post.
Ralph Nader, let’s begin with you. If you can respond to what we just heard — to say the least, you’re a critic of how Democrats and Republicans deal with elections in this country — and what happened yesterday, and then move on to, overall, what President Biden said yesterday?
RALPH NADER: Well, the two-hour news conference was deliberate. I think he wanted to show his stamina. And he had a great opportunity to communicate a lot of important things, which he didn’t do.
By the same token, the media did not make itself proud. It had a very narrow range of questions, and huge areas were never asked. They never asked about climate disruption and the Republican opposition to doing anything about it. They didn’t ask about the military budget, where Congress gave Biden $24 billion more than the Pentagon even asked for. They didn’t ask about the drain on the Treasury from hundreds of billions of dollars of corporate welfare, which is a kind of corporate socialism. They didn’t ask about the corporate crime wave that is ripping off consumers and exploiting labor in this country and has been reported around the country. And he didn’t raise those questions, either.
They raised the antitrust issue — he raised it, properly, for meatpacking companies controlling and the pricing of meat products. But no one asked him: Well, if he’s so keen on antitrust and anti-monopoly policy, why isn’t he demanding larger budgets? There are very few federal antitrust cops on the corporate monopoly beat at the Federal Trade Commission or the Department of Justice.
Most interestingly, the press didn’t ask about what his attorney general is going to do to prosecute Donald Trump. We’ve written letters to Merrick Garland listing one criminal federal statute after another that he openly and brazenly violated, including political events on the White House lawn, which is a crime under the Hatch Act. No answer whatsoever. No special counsel being appointed to investigate and recommend prosecution of this criminal recidivist Donald J. Trump, who has never seen a law that he hasn’t violated.
So, if you look at the big picture, it was a very disappointing press conference from both sides — the issues that Biden didn’t raise and the dittohead-type narrow range of questions from the media.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ralph, one of the issues that Biden did address was, of course, the pandemic. If you could respond to the comments he did make on the pandemic, and the fact that, you know, what’s happened since last May — the Biden administration supported a waiver of the COVID-19 vaccines, and Public Citizen, that has come out with a study showing that within a year, 8 billion doses of an mRNA vaccine could be produced for $23 billion — I mean, what more could the Biden administration be doing?
RALPH NADER: Well, they could be leading an international consortium to spend that modest amount for vaccination throughout the Third World. They could be playing much tougher against the drug companies that are being subsidized to levels of profiteering — Pfizer, Moderna — and exerting their patent monopoly rights and blocking wider manufacturing of these medicines. They haven’t done that. The report —
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about that, Ralph. I want to talk specifically about this. I mean, Public Citizen is one of the groups that you founded —
RALPH NADER: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — that put out that report, and, interestingly, doesn’t call the Moderna vaccine the “Moderna vaccine.” They call it the ”NIH-Moderna vaccine,” like you talk about Pfizer-BioNTech, because NIH — that is, the people’s health institute of this country, taxpayer-funded — had their scientists working on this, as well, provided enormous amount of resources. So, if you can talk specifically, while President Biden was asked, you know, about providing the vaccines to the world, what he specifically could demand, for example, of Moderna, who got the money at the front end, and Pfizer, that was promised the money at the back end, in terms of sharing the recipe, the formula, with factories and manufacturers around the world that are used to producing drugs but just simply don’t have those recipes?
RALPH NADER: Well, the federal government has long had the authority to break these patents in times of emergency, which is clearly the case. He’s not doing it. The World Health Organization has authority to do it, as well. And as Public Citizen reported, we’re talking about $35 billion, which is only a third of Apple corporation’s stock buyback last year, $90 billion.
So, there wouldn’t be a vaccine without the National Institutes of Health research over the last 25 years. All the basic research is funded by the taxpayer, and the taxpayer doesn’t get much of a return. The taxpayer is basically funding corporate patent monopolies over these drugs. They’re not just the vaccines here but a whole range of drugs. The taxpayer is funding all kinds of drug research and development, so that the drug companies can export their manufacturing of drugs to China and India. We have a national security problem here: There are no antibiotics manufactured in the U.S. And there’s no penicillin manufactured in the U.S. It’s imported from China and India under very inadequate Food and Drug Administration inspection.
So, yeah, I mean, he should make a — he made a big deal saying he’s not a socialist like Bernie Sanders. He is a corporate socialist, completely. He has always, in his career — Joe Biden — supported subsidies, handouts, giveaways, bailouts, without any challenge. And he’s continuing to do that.
And the reporters didn’t take him to task there. The reporters, either they’re not doing their homework or they’re full of taboos. I mean, they never raise the corporate supremacy over our country. There isn’t a single agency in the federal government that isn’t influenced maximally by corporate lobbies. And Congress is swarmed by corporate lobbies. You have 500 drug company lobbyists full-time assigned to Congress, and there are 535 members of Congress. And these corporations are strategically commercializing every aspect of our society, commercializing childhood, strategically planning the tax system, the food system, the health system, fighting global warming remedies, the fossil fuel industry, ExxonMobil. They’re planning our genetic inheritance. Commercializing childhood should be a left-right issue, conservative issue. The press never asks about it. The self-censorship of the press is overwhelming. That’s why we have to have a more independent media.
We have to have — I mean, look at the coverage of Ukraine. As Katrina pointed out, if our country was invaded in a span of 40 years from the north, with 50 million casualties, what do you think we would do? Do you think we would just station troops on the northern border? We would have taken over the northern country and annexed it. And that’s why dictator Putin can get away with what he’s doing now, in terms of public opinion of the impoverished Russian people, is because they remember. They have their casualties in their families from the western frontiers, started with Napoleon.
And here we are, expanding a military alliance for arms sales for the military-industrial complex, because, as was pointed out, a condition of joining NATO is to buy the F-16 and other weapons in Eastern European countries. NATO is a military alliance organized against the Soviet Union. And now they’re expanding it in Eastern Europe and putting troops there. It’s, here we go again, a completely preventable conflict. What Putin really wants is Ukraine never to join NATO, no strategic offensive weapons in the Ukraine. He’s asking for ending strategic weapons in Europe — that is not going to happen.
But the press asks war-inciting questions. NPR asked it. David Sanger asked it. They asked war-inciting questions. It’s like Vietnam all over again. It’s like Iraq all over again. They don’t ask peace-inciting questions about diplomacy. And this is a dangerous situation, and the press just isn’t doing its job. It isn’t just Biden.
He can’t communicate how the GOP is opposed to everything that’s defined as human. You don’t make moral appeals to the GOP, like Senator Warnock just did. You show that they are opposed to sending $250 and $300 monthly checks to 65 million children, which has stopped now, and the GOP will not expand it. I mean, that’s a good political item to communicate to the American people. Those 65 million children come from conservative and liberal families who are both deprived. He doesn’t know how to communicate. The GOP knows what it wants. It’s messianic. It’s fascistic. It’s driven. And the communication from the Democrats, from the DNC to the White House, is weak. It’s anemic. And the public senses that.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s —
RALPH NADER: He doesn’t know how to sell his own program.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to President Biden speaking about the Build Back Better Act and both get Ralph Nader’s response and, overall, Katrina vanden Heuvel’s response, as well.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Yes. I’m confident we can get pieces, big chunks, of the Build Back Better law signed into law. … I think that we can get — and I’ve been talking to a number of my colleagues on the Hill. I think it’s clear that we would be able to get support for the — for the $500-plus billion for energy and the environmental issues that are there, number one. Number two, I know that the two people who have opposed, on the Democratic side at least, support a number of the things that are in there. For example, Joe Manchin strongly supports early education, 3 year and 4 years of age, strongly supports that. There is strong support for, I think, a number of the way in which to pay for these — pay for this proposal. So I think there is — and I’m not going to — I’m not going to negotiate against myself as to what should and shouldn’t be in it, but I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now, and come back and fight for the rest later.
AMY GOODMAN: So, breaking up Build Back Better. Katrina, if you could start by responding both to Build Back Better and, overall, the rest of the news conference that President Biden held yesterday on this first anniversary of his inauguration?
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: On the Build Back Better front — first of all, let’s not forget the American Rescue Plan, which — $1.9 trillion. It helped cut poverty, child poverty. And if the child tax credits continued, you could continue 40% reduction in poverty for a long, long time. Bernie Sanders thought that was the most consequential legislation for working people in decades. You had the bipartisan infrastructure plan. But it’s this Build Back Better, of course, that is in play.
There is a move on to come back next week, in the progressive side of Congress, and put back a plan that was laid out in November. I hate to do the numbers, because I think the media did a great disservice by sort of cutting the numbers every day instead of laying out what was in the plan, or maybe saying 1% of GDP instead of, in one New York Times story, “tax and spend,” huge piece of legislation. But I think they’re going to come back with climate, child care and tax stuff, and find a way to move that forward and connect it to the social, racial, economic justice of a voting rights bill and what we’ve seen this past week. So, that seems to me this next week is going to really be a push on trying to put back Build Back together — Build Back Better, and not in the way the moderates in the Congress look at it, the House moderates, not piece by piece, but a more transformative bill, not the $6.4 trillion, to use a number.
In terms of picking up on what Ralph said, I do think Biden — you know, a long press conference, rambling press conference, doesn’t make up for maybe speaking to the people every month. I wrote a column a year ago about fireside chats. Maybe that’s maudlin. Maybe that’s not his form. But the messaging, connecting to people, speaking to people — not only speaking, but laying out who the villains are, laying out some of what Ralph said, in a maybe more homespun way — but it’s surprising that he has failed in that way. You know, he could have, I think, done better. Of course he’s not a socialist, but the need to say that is always part of the trope.
And I do think Ralph is absolutely right. In the media, you get — the media who’s in that room, the media in that room, that press room, is, for example, asking war-inciting questions. The questions are leading to the answers they want. And you don’t get — it’s kind of a suffocating consensus of questions in that room. And I remember Helen Thomas on the eve of Iraq, who was kind of mocked by her colleagues because she was asking tough questions of President Bush, who was ready for air balls. And that’s really, I think, very sad. And what’s not on the agenda are the kinds of questions Ralph asked — maybe not as tough as Ralph would ask them, but framed in a way that would really produce some news that’s needed, necessary news for the American people.
One last thing on the mandate, the mask. With the Supreme Court decision, that’s not been reported sufficiently, in my mind, about test — vaccinated and test, I mean, that is shocking that the Supreme Court — it’s not shocking, in the same way President Biden should not be shocked by the Republican Party as it exists today. But that the Supreme Court essentially sided with death, I think, in that COVID decision is something we should think long and hard about.
AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly, Ralph Nader, responding to Build Back Better being broken up.
RALPH NADER: Yeah. There are two major omissions here. He didn’t push his tax increases for corporations and the corporate rich, the super rich, which he proposed, because these programs are not supposed to be on the backs of our descendants, in terms of deficits. They should be paid for by restoring the tax system to the level of the prosperous '60s, when the corporations paid much higher taxes. And he didn't take advantage there.
And he didn’t take advantage of — he calls himself a union guy. He should have pushed for the $15 minimum wage through the Senate. He should have showed how the Republicans are against almost everything that he’s proposing that has huge popular polls, left-right support, from the social safety net to rebuilding America in community after community with the support of the local Chamber of Commerce and local unions. He missed that. And he didn’t push the bill that his own Democrats passed in the House, languishing in the Senate, to make it easier for workers to form unions.
And most critically, these programs are going to fail if they don’t deal with audits and anti-corruption efforts inside. The inspector general for the Small Business Administration has been pointing out for years that the big companies are ripping off the payroll protection plan. They don’t deserve it. Some corporate law firms actually got money from the corporate protection plan, which is designed mostly for small business. So, if the press doesn’t want to ask these very fundamental questions, that doesn’t mean that Biden’s advisers shouldn’t have emphasized in his original message at the press conference to highlight these areas.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Katrina, we just have a minute left. His press conference took place at a time when his approval ratings in his first year are extremely, substantially lower than when he began. What are the likely consequences of this for the midterms later this year?
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Not pretty. But he has time to turn it around. A day, you know, a week in politics is a whole other time factor. But he needs to do some things that are both morally and strategically important — student loan debt, some of those issues, use executive actions in ways not to — to speak to a base that is demoralized but could be put back together. A lot of work ahead, but I think it’s possible. Turnout —
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, but we thank you both so much for being with us, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editorial director and publisher of The Nation magazine, columnist for The Washington Post — we’ll link to her pieces and to The Nation — and Ralph Nader, four-time presidential candidate, consumer advocate extraordinaire.
That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for a human resources manager. Learn more and apply at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Be safe. Wear a mask.