Remember when Joe Biden ran for president in what commentators called the “centrist” lane of the Democratic primaries? The idea was that a “moderate” like Biden, unlike rival Bernie Sanders, would not push radical plans to completely change American society. That would reassure non-progressive Democrats, and independents, too, that Biden would be a safe choice for president. They didn’t want to remake the world. They just wanted things to get better.
You could see the difference in the Democratic debates. To take one example, at a debate in November 2019, Sanders urged people to join him “if you want to be part of a movement that is not only going to beat Trump but transform America.” Biden’s pitch was much more modest; beating Trump and going back to the old ways were enough. “Let’s take back this country,” Biden said, “and lead the world again.”
Now Biden is president and pushing vast, multi-trillion-dollar spending projects, the latest of which is the Build Back Better Act, a $2.2 trillion behemoth passed last week by Democrats (and Democrats alone) in the House of Representatives. And the old Biden centrist act is nowhere to be found. Now, the word the White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill have chosen to describe the president’s agenda is “transform” — just like Bernie used to say.
The White House frequently sends out emails headlined “What They Are Saying,” which collect quotes from Democratic politicians and interest group leaders praising Biden’s actions. Now, they are praising the Build Back Better Act. The praise has a certain similarity.
A “What They Are Saying” email listing statements from “LGBTQI+ Leaders” calls Build Back Better a “transformational bill” that will make a “transformative investment” to “transform the lives of millions of Americans.” An email with the comments of “Women and Family Advocates” says the bill has “transformational initiatives” that will make “transformative investments” to effect a “historic transformation” that will “transform the lives of children and families.” An email from “Black Leaders” says the “transformational bill” will make a “transformative investment” that will “transform our nation for decades to come.” An email from “Young Leaders” calls BBB a “transformative bill,” while “Gun Violence Prevention Leaders” hail Biden’s “transformational” agenda.
You get the idea. But no one is more on board for the Biden transformation than Democrats in the House, where party members seem to disagree only on whether the bill should be called “transformational” or “transformative.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls it “transformative.” Rep. John Yarmouth calls it “transformational.” Rep. Raul Grijalva chooses “transformative.” Rep. Mark Takano, “transformational.” Rep. Jerry Nadler, “transformational.” Rep. Adam Smith, “transformational.” Rep. Judy Chu, “transformational.” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, “transformative.” Rep. Brenda Lawrence, “transformational.” Rep. Louis Frankel, “transformational.” Rep. Barbara Lee, “transformational.” Rep. Mike Quigley, “transformative.” Rep. Joe Neguse, “transformational.” Rep. Ayanna Pressley, “transformational.” Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, “transformational.” Finally, Rep. Richard Neal, choosing not to take a side in that debate, says simply that BBB will “transform our country.”
When Sanders pledged to “transform” the United States, he envisioned mind-boggling expenditures — say, $10 trillion — that would touch every aspect of American life. He didn’t win the White House, but he won the argument. During Biden’s presidency, Congress has passed a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill (that had little to do with COVID relief) and a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, and now the House has passed the $2.2 trillion Build Back Better Act. In the end, Biden is likely to win about $5 trillion in extra spending just this year — about half of what Sanders wanted, but still mind-boggling. And it will touch every aspect of American life.
Finally, when it comes to rhetoric, there’s no doubt Sanders has won a smashing victory. The Biden White House sounds like Bernie Sanders. The Democratic leadership sounds like Bernie Sanders. The party’s interest groups sound like Bernie Sanders. You could say that the old socialist senator, once an outsider and lone voice, has managed to, yes, transform his party.