Will Joe Biden cast aside decades of conservative political wisdom and lead us to an FDR style presidency he’s talked about, or is this another case of Biden telling voters exactly what he thinks they want to hear? Branco Marcetic author of ‘Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden’, joins Paul Jay on theAnalysis.news podcast.
Hi, I’m Paul Jay, welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast.
Joe Biden will be the next president barring something unexpected and these days that something could well be increased provocations against China or maybe Iran, creating an opportunity for Trump to have his war-time president moment, outright war is unlikely, but almost war possible.
If you think that Trump represents an extremely aggressive section of American capital and is moving the country towards a Mussolini style corporate fascism, then there’s only one way to defeat Trump and that’s to vote for Biden.
That said, we shouldn’t have illusions about who Biden represents. So consider this interview one that helps dispel notions that Biden is anything other than a representative of, at least domestically, a somewhat less aggressive section of finance and big corporate power, less aggressive. But Biden is still a defender of a system and policies that created the greatest inequality gap in history and set the table for Trump.
When it comes to foreign policy Biden is a mixed bag. He supported the Iraq war, but he fought to pass the Iran nuclear deal. His recent threatening rhetoric against China does not promise much change on that front. And one thing is certain if the U.S. and China do not cooperate to deal with the climate crisis, we’re doomed. Perhaps, despite the rhetoric, there is more of a chance of Biden doing that than Trump, given that Don the Con won’t even accept that there is a climate crisis.
Now joining us to discuss just who is the real Joe Biden is Branco Marcetic. He’s a staff writer for Jacobin magazine and was the 2019-2020 investigative fellow at In These Times. He’s the author of, ‘Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden’. Thanks for joining us, Branco.
Thank you for having me.
So when you wrote this, when it was published, the primaries were still on, Joe Biden was not yet the nominee. So as he is Yesterday’s Man, I guess he’s also, whether we like it or not, today’s man. In going through the book, Biden seems to be a man who’s maybe instinct is to kind of go a little bit more liberal, a little bit more understanding, things. But when political expediency says go to the right, he’ll certainly go to the right, whether it’s on crime, on the Iraq war. So overall, did I come away with a correct impression that, and what do you make of that?
Yeah, I would say so. I mean, he’s definitely on the more conservative end of the Democratic Party. He’s not an ultra-conservative, but he definitely leans that way. If you look at his AFL-CIO, (The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations), rating, he was for a long time in the 80s, he basically was around the same level as Gary Hart, who was hated by organized labor. If you look at, for example, his lifelong environmental rating, he started out as a really committed environmentalist. But by the end, his ratings were pretty middling and in fact, actually pretty low if you compare them to most other Democrats.
So, yeah, Biden has his conservative instincts. Part of it is because of the state he had to run in and when. Part of it is the time that he came up and I mean, I try and explain that in the book, that he ran as kind of a slightly socially conservative New Deal liberal initially. And then when American politics really kind of shifted to the right by the end of the 1970s and he saw that he had impending re-election, he kind of shifted to the right to follow that.
And that’s kind of where he stayed for a long time. I mean, even as late as the early 2000s, and maybe 2003. He said left-wing populism is not the way that you win elections. The country was exactly where it should have been with Clinton’s third way. This is what has to happen not just to win, but also just to govern. I think that really is kind of his fundamental philosophy is that the country is more conservative on the whole, not just on social issues, but even in economics.
So the big question going forward is, does Biden now, at 77 years old– I think it’s safe to say he’s past his prime and this is probably the last thing he’s ever going to do in his life. He might only one run for one term, so he has no re-election. Is he going to be able to cast aside decades of internalized political wisdom that he’s taken away from his career and everything that’s happened in his life and really lead us to this FDR style presidency that he’s talking about, or is this just another case of Joe Biden telling voters exactly what he thinks they want to hear and saying that he has no intention of doing? Which we have to be honest and clear-eyed, that is what he has done throughout his entire career, very shamelessly. And it’s tough there right now. It’s not super clear, we don’t know. I mean, it potentially could go either way.
I don’t think we’re going to know until maybe around December, late November when we start seeing who he’s going to actually appoint to the administration.
I give him one or two pluses. Apparently, when Obama was haggling with the Republicans and the Republicans wanted a trillion-dollar investment in nuclear weapon technology. Biden apparently was against it and Obama thought it was necessary to go along with it to make a deal with Republicans on some other issues to do with the military budget and such. But Obama was quite happy already to do the deal with the big investment in nuclear weapons, which is a big investment in a very dangerous, even making accidental nuclear war even more dangerous, and Biden apparently opposed it. This is in a book written about it.
The other thing I give him some credit for is that he fought for the Iran nuclear deal and fought against Chuck Schumer and that wing of the party that was that’s very hawkish and very pro, Netanyahu, Israel. Larry Wilkerson was on the Hill fighting for the Iran nuclear deal, and he was saying that Biden fought quite hard for that.
On the other hand, he’s got a pretty lousy history on a lot of foreign policy issues. So why don’t you talk about Biden historically on foreign policy and then we can talk again about what to expect. As I said in the introduction, his rhetoric on China has been pretty bad.
Yeah, Biden similar to on the domestic front, he started out as a liberal on foreign policy. He was very critical of U.S. policy in countries like Angola, and he was critical of Henry Kissinger. Again, by the time that he had to run for re-election in the late 70s, he kind of flipped that because he realized, “Hey, wait a minute, I got to try and appeal to, a more conservative voting base”, even though that’s not how he had won originally, but nonetheless. By the 80s, when Reagan wins, he completely makes a shift to being more of a Democratic hawk because he looks at Reagan’s victories and he does this whole tour through the United States, kind of castigating Democrats and telling them, “Hey, we can’t be the party of not going to war anymore, we have to support military intervention or at least be more willing to do it than we have been in the past. Otherwise, we’re going to keep getting rolled by these guys”.
And by the 90s, he’s very much a full-fledged hawk. He’s calling for intervention and the wars in Yugoslavia, he’s calling for harsher measures against Iraq. All of that obviously leads up to the moment in 2002 where Biden, not just votes for the Iraq war, which is the thing that people are always going to blame him for, but slightly inaccurate, because he didn’t just vote for it, he was a foreign cheerleader for it. I mean, he was vital to the Bush administration’s messaging to sell Democrats and liberal voters onto the Iraq war and actually even after his vote toward the Middle East, trying to smooth things and make sure that when the US invaded, there would be no problem.
To his credit, by the time he was in the Obama administration, he definitely took some good positions, you mentioned the Iran deal. There’s also the fact that he opposed the war in Libya. Reportedly, he opposed the surge in Afghanistan. On the other hand, at the same time, Biden was responsible for devising what basically became Obama’s foreign policy, which is called the Counterterrorism Plus Policy. So basically drones and special forces, that was Obama’s approach, instead of sending troops for these costly wars, invasions, instead, what we’ll do is these small little surgical deployments, which is much cheaper in terms of lives and money for the United States, in terms of whether it’s actually strategically better, that, I would say has been proven completely the opposite, because people in these countries still resent the US intervening, whether they’re invading or whether they’re just blowing up their neighbours with drones or raiding the houses at night and killing family members.
I think also the other thing about Biden is that he really has not the best judgment on foreign policy. He was one of the people that pushed for NATO expansion in the 90s. He was a big leader in that. And that is part of the reason why there are a really strong anti-American resentment and the rise in Russian nationalism that kind of helped Putin come to power. When Biden was Obama’s point-man in Iraq, he pushed for al-Maliki, the Iraqi strongman, to stay in power.
And he kind of overruled people who were kind of looking for a less sectarian solution to Iraq’s problems. Biden’s belief is that people kind of racial and ethnic and religious lines irreparably divide people and that can’t be bridged. And therefore, war and conflict are inevitable between people of different backgrounds.
And so the only way to deal with it is to separate them. That was why he pushed in Iraq, and it was a disastrous idea that was criticized by pretty much everyone, so I could go on and on. But, yeah, that doesn’t always have the best foreign policy judgment, even now, we can go into this a little more, but even now, he’s not really proposing to roll back some of the stuff that Trump has done. He’s going to leave in place a lot of the things that Trump is doing that’s disastrous. So, you know, a mixed bag.
He was asked whether he would take sanctions off Iran. I mean, these sanctions right now in the middle of coronavirus, they were always arguably genocidal. Maybe people want to quibble with whether that word is appropriate in that context, I think now it can’t really be disputed in the middle of this pandemic. Biden said that you know, we’ll have to see. He’s not going to commit to it.
Is he committed to going back to the Iran nuclear agreement?
Yep, he is. I’m not sure how he’s going to reconcile those two things. I mean, also, it’s going to be difficult-
-Because if you go back to the agreement, you got to drop the sanctions.
Yeah, right. But, you know, this is a question of, is Iran going to want to, they may have no choice ultimately, but as it is, if I was Iranian leader, I would really not be sure what the benefit is of entering a deal that that, you know, is going to be reneged on as soon as a Republican comes on, something is going to be difficulties there. But, yeah, I mean, hopefully, you know, Biden at least does the right thing. And maybe when he’s not campaigning, eventually he will lift sanctions as a kind of show of good faith, I guess.
And he’s also not going to move the US embassy that’s been moved to Jerusalem, which was obviously a very inflammatory move by Trump, I’m sorry, actually, one that Biden himself voted for back in 95′, I believe, 95’/96′. He voted to allow it, so he’s going to keep that there. I believe he’s also not going to he refuses to condition Israeli aid, which at a time when Israel is going to annex a large swath of Palestinian land, I’m not really sure what the end goal there is.
I think a lot of people say, well, you know, this is just Biden saying stuff during the campaign. He doesn’t want to move too far left to give Trump too much ammunition or give Republicans too much ammunition. The question is, though, I mean, if you’re not going to move left or even move on these things, which are bipartisan policy until recently during an election where the other guy is really just drowning because he’s completely making a mess out of this pandemic response, when will you, because of course, after the election, that’s only two more years before midterms. And, you know, the argument then becomes, well, hold on, we can’t move too far, because we got to keep the House and the Senate, at least there’s more in the Senate.
So I think, yeah, again, a mixed bag. There’s a reason why the Bernie Sanders’s energy task force has completely left out foreign policy.
There was no joint task force on foreign policy.
That’s right. I think they figured, you know, this is just something that’s not worth it.
And you said the reason is that they would have had such disagreements that there wasn’t a point of trying to have a joint plan or?
I suspect that that’s, I think they thought, you know, what are the places that we can push them on? And domestic policy might be those things. And they just figured that’s no point of having a fight over foreign policy because, I mean, you know, you are fighting a lot of entrenched interests with foreign policy, I guess not just Biden’s caution, but also, you know, the entire kind of national security bureaucracy and the kind of the D.C. national security white establishment that has such sway.
Before we get into the substance of the Biden climate plan, there’s a foreign policy piece to this. And I said this in the introduction, as good or not good as the Biden climate plan is, and I think one would conclude it’s nowhere near enough to stop a catastrophe, but it’s a lot more than we’ve seen from Biden up until now. But if it isn’t done in collaboration with China, it’s almost meaningless if China and the United States don’t together forge a climate plan and then they keep using each other as an excuse not to do it or we’re not going to do it because China is not and vice versa. Then the plan kind of doesn’t mean anything you can say, you know, and Biden’s plan, it talks about all electricity will be created by sustainable energy by 2035. But even if they hit that target, if the rest of the world doesn’t hit some kind of target, then again, it’s meaningless.
So this issue of him trying to almost outflank Trump from the right, from a more aggressive tone on China, is this a tactic? So to take China away as a Trump card in the election, or is he committed to this Obama pivot? But, you know, his rhetoric about China is a lot more aggressive than anything Obama did.
Yeah, I would say that it’s probably a campaign tactic, which is pretty typical for Biden. Biden’s response to anyone to the right of him who is attacking him from the right has always been to move right.
Which is actually one of the– In the book, I argued one of the dangers of nominating someone like that, someone whose only response to right-wing attacks is to pivot right again. Perhaps he will turn over a new leaf if and when he wins the presidency, but we’ll have to see that.
The other point about this is that this idea of competing with China, you know, going green, but also making the center of this kind of competitive economic strategy, that’s a pretty typical standard Washington kind of view.
Honestly, during the primary campaign, I didn’t really see anyone articulate any sort of realistic vision for what actual climate policy will look like other than Bernie Sanders. Even Elizabeth Warren kind of couched her plan in terms of competing with the rest of the world in terms of the kind of making the United States this big exporter. And so, yeah, you’re right, unless there’s cooperation with China, but even with countries like Russia and loads of others, obviously, the big polluters, unless that happens, all these plans are very nice. And even if they get achieved, it will ultimately not mean anything.
You know, again, I think we talked about before, but I think a lot of this is going to depend on who does Biden pick to actually run his administration. You know, I think that’s going to tell you a lot about what kind of foreign policy he’s going to pick, whether on Biden a kind of cooperative foreign policy to take a global approach to solve the climate crisis is actually going to happen or whether it’s going to be more of the Obama administration.
What do you make of Susan Rice as either VP or secretary of state?
Well, you know, Susan Rice on the hawkish end of the Democratic foreign policy debate, you know, so I think we can expect probably a lot of tough stuff against Russia. I think Biden has said as much as well, to create a contrast with Trump saying, “Well, you know, Trump doesn’t go hard with Russia, I will”. It sounds very good. Unfortunately, the reality is that the US Russia relationship was it’s been terrible for a long time, even before the hacking, which itself was a response to the provocations by the United States. And it’s all well and good to kind of come in and says, I’m going to be tough on Russia.
But the problem is that these are two heavily nuclear-armed countries that have obviously a history of nearly coming to blows, you know, to say the least. And right now, the political climate is such, it’s been this way for four years, that even floating the idea of having a cooperative relationship or at least tamping down tensions with Russia is a good thing, and certainly what the world should aim for it has kind of been delegitimized.
So I think that’s what we can look forward to with that. I mean, another person to watch for is Michèle Flournoy. She was in 2016, floated to be Hillary Clinton’s secretary of state. She is now at a think tank, obviously, that didn’t work out. But I’ve heard some things that maybe she could be in the running for a similar position again. And if so, Flournoy has written in the past about the idea of a centering US security and economic security, and basing it on becoming an even bigger exporter of fossil fuels. So Michele Flournoy gets in there will not be a great sign for, you know, preventing the climate crisis.
But I think, you know, all this points to why people with Biden, if and when Biden wins and Trump is out, people cannot just simply sort of, you know, go back to brunch, as people have been saying over the last four years. People are going to have to resist and to pressure Biden as much as they have Trump otherwise it’s going to be very easy for him to do a lot of terrible, terrible things.
I think they’re going to have to pressure Biden more than Trump because, with Trump, there was very little chance of actually influencing any policy. But Biden needs to hear the footsteps in the streets. His natural inclination will be to succumb to the pressures of both financing the military-industrial complex and so on. He’s got to feel practical I mean, terrorized is too strong a word, but he’s got to really feel that the people are ready for massive change.
And this accommodation he did with the left-wing of the party, putting AOC on the climate task force and, you know, making these deals with Bernie to make it sort of appeasing the left of the party if he forgets all that once he’s elected. And he’s very likely to certainly Obama promised all kinds of stuff to the unions, the Employee Free Choice Act, but just completely disappeared once he was elected. His natural inclination will be, as you say in the book and in the interview, ” just to get along” and to get along with more, quote-unquote, centrist Republicans.
But if there’s real massive organizing in the streets and online and wherever, but I don’t see it is the problem, the consciousness of the movement, the protests in Portland, or we did this other conversation on Portland. Are people raising more than police reform demands? Is there a consciousness growing in the movement that this movement needs to take on the big issues, in terms of who owns stuff, who has power, especially on the question of climate and foreign policy? Do you see that kind of consciousness developing in a way that this movement can have that kind of force?
I think we saw some of that forming with the teacher strikes over the last few years, which we were influenced by the Bernie Sanders campaign. You know, I think even as an awareness of the consciousness-raising event, that was a really important thing. But I think it’s also important the fact that those teachers really want tangible victories. By taking action, they want, and that’s a really important thing. And it’s really important for a whole variety of reasons, not just for kind of building the momentum that you need to keep pushing further and further, but also for engendering the kind of solidarity that you need to make a mass movement.
You know, I think in the Portland example, one of the things that I have seen down the, you know, I’ve seen a few articles here and there trying to make the point that because most of the protesters are white, that it’s in some way sort of taking oxygen away from the Black Lives Matter movement or the cause that Black Lives Matters are fighting for racial justice and into police brutality, and honestly, I think that couldn’t be further from the truth. I think actually, one of the amazing things about the last couple of months is the fact that people from a wide variety of different backgrounds do feel a sense of solidarity, even across racial lines.
That shows that is not such a big division that people cannot have solidarity with their fellow man and fight for justice for someone who’s not them. And that’s what we’re seeing in Portland. I talked to actually one of the protesters and he said, there have been many police killings in Portland and elsewhere over the years. There have been many protests. The police response has always been just as violent as it has been this particular time.
What’s new this time is that there are all these other people, you know, elderly people are coming out, people who, you know, may not have been protesting at all the last few years or whatever. And but they were so affected by what they saw that they understood the need to get out on the streets. And he said, you know, the eyes have been opened. And I think we’re seeing that across the US in general with the police brutality.
I mean, these protests now are much more popular than the BLM protests were back in 2015. I think they were viewed majority negatively at the time, and that’s been a huge shift. Hopefully, that’s not just going to dissipate, but it’s actually going to be something that people can build off of going forward. I mean, there’s definitely been victories that have been won in some cities to achieve police reforms. It remains to be seen. I have my fingers crossed, I hope that it does lead to something bigger.
In the book, you have a paragraph where you say that it’s not– I don’t have in front of me, but it’s not out of the question, Biden could actually move even more to the right, in a sense, could accomplish more moving to the right than even Trump. And there are some people arguing that there’s not enough difference between a Biden and a Trump for people to get involved in worrying about whether Biden wins or not. You’ve spent the last bit of your life with Biden. What do you make of that debate?
I mean, I think that is a real concern. I mean, when the protests just started, when we were seeing this really crazy wave of state violence being visited upon protesters and journalists and everything and people kind of pining for the end of Trump. But I tried to point out Trump’s done some terrible things, but for a long time, this was actually violence at the hands of Democrats, you know, liberal mayors, Democrat governors. They were seeing this stuff and they were the ones who were blaming outside agitators and, you know, bringing in federal surveillance and everything. And it was around this time that Biden put out this bit of his platform to do with policing, I believe, or it was outreach to the Jewish community. And one of the things they wanted to pass was a domestic terrorism bill, which if you remember when Trump was talking about declaring ANTIFA,(a political protest movement comprising autonomous groups affiliated by their militant opposition to fascism and other forms of extreme right-wing ideology), a terrorist organization, which people were very rightly alarmed about. One of the reasons that he couldn’t do this was because there isn’t domestic terrorism legislation, not yet anyway. So one of the worries that I have is that Trump will lose, Biden comes in and because everyone just assumes, OK, everything’s back to normal now, we’re all fine, this guy’s here. People sort of just tune out and go back to living their lives and stop caring. And Biden gets away with a whole host of things that a Republican could never get away with. Because Republicans trying to whether it’s cut Social Security and Medicare or pass some sort of extreme national security legislation there’s this anger from liberal voters that isn’t always there when it’s a Democrat. Obama famously tried to cut those programs, Obama very much escalated the war on terror that the Bush had started, he did things that Bush would have been tarred as kind of the next Hitler if he had tried to do. And so I truly worry that does not happen. One of the things that make me think that maybe it won’t is because unlike Obama, Biden is not a particularly popular politician.
If you look at polling overwhelmingly, the only reason people are voting for him is that they want Trump out. He’s not someone who people necessarily agree with on a policy basis is, you know, I think well past his peak in terms of being able to be charismatic and persuasive and sort of magnetic politician that we’ve all seen his debate performances and that kind of thing. So I think it’s going to be harder for him to get away with some of this more reactionary stuff than, say, someone like Obama might have gotten away with.
You know, again, this is all speculation, but I think the key takeaway is that, yes, if the only pressure that Biden gets is from finance and big business and the right, the far-right, then he is going to move in that direction because why? He has no reason not to. It’s the easiest thing to do. So the pressure from the left has to be equal, if not greater than the pressure he’s getting from the right and from big business. And that hopefully means people will be out in the streets even under the Biden administration.
And something you said in the beginning, which I think I agree with, you know, his age is actually a plus in a way he doesn’t really need to worry about a political career after he’s been, president. There’s not going to be a second term, but he’s certainly not going to run for anything other than that and likely not even a second term. He’s not looking to feather his nest the way Obama was. I mean, Obama wanted to live with the billionaire class once he left the presidency and he more or less is. His buddies and friends, he goes vacationing with the super-rich.
So maybe there is a kind of weird historic moment here where Biden actually might want to go down as a president. He says he wants to have the most progressive administration since Roosevelt. There’s nothing in his history to tell us that he would do that.
On the other hand, maybe we’re in just such weird times right now, including that so much of the even the financial elites are all for spending tons of money right now. They don’t mind, they’ve all become super Keynesian. And if he wants to have a 2-3 million dollar green infrastructure plan and pour money into the economy, Wall Street, the financial elites, they’ll probably be quite supportive of it, especially given that his climate plan doesn’t really take on the fossil fuel companies. So I don’t know how effective it’s going to be actually in terms of climate, but in terms of a kind of liberal-ish Keynesian domestic policy, the conditions are quite good for it.
Yeah, I think it’s, as you say, important to remind ourselves that in this particular historical moment, anything could happen, some really crazy things could happen that I would not have envisioned when I was writing this. I definitely did not envision a global pandemic and accompanying depression, and so I think that’s key to know. I think the other thing is there’s a bit of a bigger left block forming in Congress, at least in the House. I think those lawmakers have to start acting more like the Tea Party did, for the Republicans really throwing their weight around, even if they’re a very small amount of people they, otherwise they don’t have any other leverage. You know, they’re not going to be given a seat at the table. The Democrats don’t want them to have any influence over policy. And again, to reiterate people got to get out there, the worst thing that can happen is that people make excuses for Biden in the same way that they do for Obama. Oh, well, you know, I’m sure he wants to do the right thing, he just can’t. Well, you know, he has to do this because he has to win the midterms, blah, blah, blah. That’s the absolute worst thing you can do with a politician is to coddle them. You have to light a fire under them. You have to make them create the pressure, make them do what you want them to do.
You know, to use that apocryphal FDR story, when a bunch of labor activists and others went to his office and said, you know, I agree with everything you want me to do now, make me do it. So even if we assume the very best motives with Joe Biden that he really does want to do this, he really does want to be the next FDR, make him do it, listen to the original FDR. Make him do it.
All right. Thanks for joining us, Branco.
And thank you for joining us on the Analysis News podcast.