Opinion: Obama’s Endorsement Challenges Biden, Re-Imagines Presidency for the Future

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Last Tuesday, former President Barack Obama gave his much-anticipated endorsement of his former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential candidacy. 

The endorsement was expected, of course, despite the wait Obama imposed, which seemed likely attributable to his preference to time his speech in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ own endorsement of Biden, creating a crescendo effect.

And while elements of the endorsement no doubt aligned with expectations, Obama also departed from the standard endorsement protocols, re-directing and even challenging the emphasis on a “return to normalcy” that was in many ways Biden’s campaign signature. 

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Listening closely, we could hear Obama call urgently for a new approach to the presidency, one informed not just by the “audacity of hope” but by the genuine audacity of ideas and policies responding to, and rooted in a sobering recognition and understanding of, the inequities, divisions, and repression the majority of Americans suffer.

The endorsement contained the expected elements of praise for Biden’s character, empathy, and experience.  Obama played these notes eloquently, reminding us:

“He has the character and the experience to guide us through one of our darkest times and heal us through a long recovery.”

“He’s someone whose own life has taught him how to persevere; how to bounce back when you’ve been knocked down.”                                                                                                                  

“When Joe talks with parents who’ve lost their jobs, we hear the son of a man who once       knew the pain of having to tell his children that he’d lost his.”

These qualities and skills and this emotional intelligence are certainly necessary to meet the daunting challenges of this historical moment.

Obama sounded the clarion strongly, though, that more would be required, and tended to figure the presidential office he hoped Biden would inhabit as one in which Biden would function as a kind of host of many ideas, a kind of collective presidency for the many idea-prone candidates who shared the stage with him during the Democratic primary debates.

He stressed that “to meet the moment, the Democratic Party will have to be bold,” eschewing even his own legacy as insufficient, making clear that a return to normalcy would not be enough to do justice to Americans:

But if I were running today, I wouldn’t run the same race or have the same platform as I did in 2008. The world is different; there’s too much unfinished business for us to just look backwards. We have to look to the future. Bernie understands that. And Joe understands that. It’s one of the reasons that Joe already has what is the most progressive platform of any major party nominee in history. Because even before the pandemic turned the world upside down, it was already clear that we needed real structural change.

What is hinted at in this passage, of course, as Obama names Sanders first when speaking of the need to look to the future, is that Biden’s progressive platform owes much to, and will hopefully be born out of, the rich conversations with and contributions from the cadre of humane political intellects engaging in the feisty war of ideas within the Democratic party.

He spoke against a party that would be mired in a cult of personality—in this case his own—offering humility and vision, challenging this presidency to move beyond him:

So we need to do more than just tinker around the edges with tax credits or underfunded programs. We have to go further to give everybody a great education, a lasting career, and a stable retirement.

We have to protect the gains we made with the Affordable Care Act, but it’s also time to go further.

We have to return the U.S. to the Paris Agreement, and lead the world in reducing the pollution that causes climate change. But science tells us we have to go much further . . .

The theme, of course, is going further than we’ve ever gone before in America, because anything less will insufficient to fulfill American lives.

And the recent coronavirus pandemic makes clear the value and urgency of the many bold ideas out forth by Biden’s rivals in the Democratic primary as well as by other rising luminaries such as Stacey Abrams.

It should be abundantly clear that tying people’s health insurance to their employment poses problems during moments of mass unemployment, problems for which Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have policies to address in their Medicare-For-All proposals.

Warren, of course, spent a good portion of her life trying to build a stronger social safety net and to rescue Americans from unfair bankruptcy laws when they fell into economic hardships.  What experience and knowledge could be more relevant now?

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling that forced Wisconsin to go forward with its election even though it meant voters would have to risk their lives to participate, highlights the relevance of Abrams’ crusades around voter suppression and the rampant racism that undermines democracy in America.

Kamala Harris, of course, repeatedly kept Joe Biden focused on issues of racism and sexism in America.

And certainly this pandemic has validated the relevance and utility of Andrew Yang’s hallmark issue of the universal basic income.  If such a policy were in place now, Americans would likely be experiencing a lot less anxiety right now.

And perhaps, in this moment, most crucial in Yang’s vision was his constant reminder that the health of our economy must be measured first and foremost in terms of the health of the people, as he when he said in a debate last December:

 

 

“GDP and corporate profits are at record highs in America today. Also at record highs: depression, financial insecurity, student loan debt, even suicides and drug overdoses.  It has gotten so bad that our life expectancy as a country has declined for three straight years because suicide rates and drug overdoses have overtaken vehicle deaths for the first time in American history. The fact is this employment rate and GDP have very little relationship with people’s lived experience on the ground.”

A good economy is one that fosters health, not one that sacrifices America lives.

The ideas and know-how are there in the Democratic Party.

Obama challenged Biden to invite these characters and ideas into the Oval Office, to look forward to create a healthier and more human normal.