There’s a bitter irony in the timing of Bernie Sanders’ exit. On Wednesday, when Senator Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic race for the White House, he took a dream of a strong social safety net with him at the precise moment that the necessity of his vision is being underlined. Americans are losing jobs in the millions, the uninsured or underinsured who contract covid-19 will owe thousands to the for-profit health industry, and countless undocumented immigrants will see little financial benefit from the $2 trillion dollar stimulus package passed by Congress in March. The plight of cash strapped Americans is staggering.
But a majority of Democrats primary voters don’t believe that this moment requires a Sanders-esque overhaul. They put their faith in former Vice President Joe Biden instead, most recently in Wisconsin where voters quite literally risked their lives—with Biden’s encouragement—to vote in-person, largely turning out for the former vice president. Biden, now the presumptive nominee, didn’t best his competitors due to innovative ideas he hopes to showcase to the American people, even amidst a crisis that seems to demand just that.
Biden’s campaign is a summation of what the Democratic Party is, has been, and is evidently content in continuing to be. Biden has actively derided the kind of ambitious reforms that the two progressives in the race—Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—were proposing for the duration of the Democratic primary. Instead, he has pushed for modest improvements to dysfunctional systems like health care, student debt, and climate change. Bad press pushed him to denounce his longtime support of the Hyde Amendment, but he still won’t commit to a ban on fracking despite suggesting as much in the last Democratic debate. And even though millions of Americans are projected to lose their private health insurance due to mass covid-19-induced unemployment, Biden still adamantly rejects the idea of a single-payer healthcare system.
From the perspective of a millennial who still very much associates Biden with the naivete of being a Daily Show obsessed, Obama-loving teenager, he feels like a distinctive step backward, a candidate transported from another time.
But perhaps that’s the point.
Exit polls have shown that Biden voters don’t prioritize change, and luckily for them, big changes aren’t on Biden’s agenda. Instead, his voters are prioritizing stability and harmony, and a Biden presidency promises a comforting nostalgia for the halcyon days where there was a sense of decorum and decency in the Oval Office, not the buffoonery and abject cruelty of the Trump administration. His voters dream of a country united, a time when politicians were “civil” and worked together despite political differences. And it’s the drive to get back to this bygone era that might have never even existed outside of an FDR-era wartime propaganda poster that appears to propel the Biden crowd above all else. He’s the one that can get Trump out, return to so-called normalcy, all without rocking the boat. They don’t want a revolution, as Biden is eager to remind the American people. They want a return to business as usual, as inadequate and precarious as business may have been pre-2016 and will continue to be even if Biden wins in November: covid-19 promises that any semblance of normality will be hard to find for the foreseeable future.
But Biden, more than anything, is promising a return to Obama. This is why much of the electability argument around Biden is built upon Obama-era nostalgia; the desire to make the third-term Obama never had into a reality. A vote for Uncle Joe doubles as a vote to turn back the clock, to the last time Democrats were around to clean up a Republican’s mess. Much of Biden’s campaign has ridden on the successes of the Obama era and the popularity of the Obama brand, with a promise to mirror it, effectively wiping away the sins of Trump, an accident that never should have happened. Biden, like Obama, is campaigning as an optimistic uniter.
Obama was an icon from the start, pumped with meaning—both deserved and premature—and immediately launched to hero status in many households. His broad grin and family portraits grace the mantles, walls, and bookcases of countless black Americans of a certain age, nestled right alongside photos of their own kin. In my parents’ home there are multiple photos of young Sasha and Malia with Barack, Michelle, and their dog Bo right alongside my class pictures and photos of my high school soccer team.
Obama holds meaning. But Biden is not Obama, and relying on electability based on an Obama association without Obama’s grassroots support or enthusiasm and while ignoring the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy is a gamble for Democrats heading toward the general. Obama felt fresh and new. Biden, on the other hand, is like the end pieces of sliced bread: They’re there, they’ll serve their purpose, but you won’t be enthused by the results.
It’s easier to fall back on what seemed to work than to propose big changes, and for Democrats, the Obama era seemed to work, especially compared to the Trump era. If you focus on the boons of the Obama years—the Affordable Care Act, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a couple of solid Supreme Court Justice picks—and ignore the Republican gridlock, the stain of deportation, drone warfare, bailing out Wall Street, it’s true. But even Obama administration alumni acknowledge that mistakes were made; perhaps Democrats should see the Obama era as a light template rather than a roadmap.
So how are we to move on from the Obama era and learn from its errors when its loudest cheerleader has been tapped to lead the Democratic party into the future? Obama is still very popular with the vast majority of Democrats, and even a majority of voters across party lines believe he would be a more effective leader during the covid-19 crisis than both Trump and Biden But a lot has changed since 2012, when Biden—to frenzied applause—roared before the crowd at the Democratic National Convention, “Osama Bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive!” This clarion call helped make the case for Obama’s reelection, but it happened while the right-wing nationalism steadily gained power—unity be damned—and growing anti-establishment sentiment planted the perfect seeds for a Trump-like insurgent candidate who thumbed his nose at the politics as usual motions of Washington. The very same conciliatory motions that Biden represents and will continue to represent come November.
Covid-19 only complicates this and makes clear that the dream of an Obama era revamp is foolish, no matter how tempting it may be. Trump’s paltry response has led the United States into ruin, but it’ll take more than just a Democrat in the Oval Office to implement the policies needed to help Americans rise out of this crisis, restore dignity, and prosper when it is over.
But this isn’t a weakness to Biden supporters: To them, he’s a man with a tough legislative backbone. A man with determination in his voice. A man who believes Trump is a unique blight on American politics. A man who promises to turn the clock back to a pre-Trump era. A man for the people who still sigh and say, “I miss Obama.”