Biden’s pursuit of LBJ legacy

by Mustafa Malik

“Our long national nightmare is over!”

So declared Gerald R. Ford on August 9, 1974, from the East Room of the White House. He was making his maiden speech to the nation as the 38th president of the United States. By ending the “national nightmare” the new president meant that his pardoning of his predecessor, the disgraced President Richard M. Nixon, was going to help heal the deep wounds that Nixon’s Watergate scandal had inflicted on America.

Two days ago I remembered watching Ford’s comment live from Frederick, Maryland, as I was reading Joe Biden’s victory speech on the Internet. A bit more modestly than had Ford, the president-elect said his victory over President Trump had ushered in a “time to heal” America’s wounds, caused by Trump’s disastrous presidency.

A mediocre politician without ingenuity or a vision, Ford did not accomplish much as president before he was defeated by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 elections. Biden, too, is not known for political insights or vision, and his long career as a lawmaker and vice president has not left much of a footprint on America’s political landscape.

Can he do better as president?

He can and I am hopeful that he will, mainly because of the need of the hour and the progressive political and social climate he has inherited. Trump has vandalized America’s economy, fractured its race relations and brutalized its relations with most of America’s allies, except the murderous crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman; and the colonialist Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has turned the Palestinian territory into an open-air prison and Israel into an apartheid state. America will be grateful to its 46th president if he can just start mending the economic and racial injustices at home and the alarming fissures in foreign relations that Trump has brought about.

I am a card-carrying “Berniecrat” who worked his tails off campaigning for Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful presidential candidacy in 2016 and this year. (I still flaunt two “Bernie for President” stickers from 2016 on my car bumper.) I am still not a fan of Biden’s. I used to call him a standard-bearer of “the Republican wing of the Democratic Party” and a flunky of Wall Street, which has contributed lavishly to his presidential campaign.

Biden opposed school desegregation in the 1970s; befriended Strom Thurmond and other arch-racists; voted to trim welfare programs; overturn the Glass-Steagall law, deregulating banking and making many Wall Street banks too big to fail; pass the 1994 “tough on crime” bill, dumping many, mostly black, innocent and small-time offenders into prisons; launch the catastrophic Iraq war; and so on. In fact Biden did not face a war he did not support.

Yet I voted gladly for Biden on Tuesday, hoping that he would be able to do much of the mending I have just mentioned. Besides, Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s ultra-progressive presidential campaigns and a progressive surge in the Democratic Party and the country have moved much of America to the left, which was reflected in the platform on which the former vice president has been elected president. The platform’s embrace of Medicare-for-all, a Green New Deal, police reforms, and high tax on wealth accumulation, etc., prompted Trump to call Biden a “socialist.” Waheed Shahid of Justice Democrats has called the Democratic platform “the most progressive any Democratic nominee in the modern history” had campaigned on. On the stump Biden has also promised to quadruple federal spending on low-income housing subsidies; triple K-12 school aid in poorer areas; double Pell Grants for students and make community colleges free. Additionally, he has proposed to invest $100 billion in an affordable housing trust fund, $10 billion of which would be reserved for transit projects in high-poverty areas. It all is breathtaking, echoing, to some extent, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. It remains to be seen how much of this highly ambitious progressive agenda Biden can translate into reality.

In 1970 I was covering a public meeting of the would-be Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto for the Pakistan Observer newspaper at Liaqat Bagh park in Rawalpindi. The populist, theatrical politician promised to make pullers of rickshaws – tricycles carrying passengers – owners of their vehicles. Most rickshaw pullers rented their rickshaws. Bhutto also promised to impose heavy taxes on corporations piling up “unconscionable” wealth; have a law passed increasing the minimum wage for factory workers; “try my utmost” to see that “no Pakistanis go to bed hungry”; and so forth. In a fit of excitement, he threw away his jacket, which landed on a child’s head, making him cry. The crowd was ecstatic and chanted deliriously: “Bhutto Zindabad!” Long live Bhutto.

The meeting over, I hired a rickshaw to return to my nearby hotel. “Bhutto Zindabad,” the man pedaling the rickshaw yelled, punching the air with his fist. I asked the shabbily dressed middle-aged man if he owned his rickshaw, and he replied that he had rented it.

“Do you think Bhutto will make you owner this rickshaw?’’ I asked.

He replied in Urdu, “Nahin, sahib, yeh kabhi nahin ho ga,” no, sir, that will never happen.

“Why are you then so excited by his speech?”

“Sahib,” he said, “woh to mera dil khush kar dia,” sir, he has made my heart happy.

The lanky, middle-aged man added that most other politicians did not talk about bread-and-butter issues with the passion that Bhutto exuded.

I have to see how many of his campaign promises Biden will be able to fulfill. For now, though, his progressive agenda has “made my heart happy.”

Prime Minister Bhutto turned out to be the most progressive statesman in Pakistan’s history who adopted a plethora of anti-poverty, pro-worker and other progressive programs that no other Pakistani prime minister, let alone military dictator, has dared to attempt to this day.

If Biden can deliver on half the promises he has made to America, he will turn out to the most progressive American president since Lyndon B. Johnson, also known as LBJ.

  • Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of the blog Community, is a political commentator in Washington.

Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of the blog Community, worked three decades as an American journalist and as a researcher for U.S. think tanks. He wrote continually for major U.S. and overseas newspapers and journals. He also conducted fieldwork in Western Europe and the Middle East on U.S. foreign policy options, "crisis of liberalism" and Islamic movements.

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