Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Biden Should Go Big, and Then Brag About It

Florida once again offered an electoral conundrum this year. Even as the state’s voters filled in the bubble for Donald Trump, they did the same for one of the policies that his opponent, Joe Biden, consistently championed on the campaign trail. They voted by more than 20 percentage points to add an amendment to the Florida Constitution raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

A higher wage, in other words, actually got more votes than either presidential candidate.

If you only listened to Republicans or cable news it would seem impossible, but it’s true: Americans, including many conservatives, agree on a number of fundamental progressive economic policies, even if they vehemently disagree on which party should carry them out. This isn’t just obvious in the polling; when these policies are put to voters directly, as many were on Election Day, voters consistently approve them.

And voters passed these Democratic priorities not just in deep blue places, but purple and red ones as well. It’s a pattern that’s played out many times before: Every time voters have weighed whether to expand Medicaid, a policy many Republican politicians oppose, they’ve approved it, including in deep red states like Idaho, Missouri, Nebraska and Utah.

Mr. Biden has a number of policies he could decide to champion once he takes office and many crises to resolve. But he would be smart to put the issues voters approved this election season — and which states and cities, our laboratories of democracy, have been experimenting with for years, proving they can actually work — at the top of his list.

Florida is not the only place with a new $15 minimum wage. Voters in (admittedly very liberal) Portland, Me., approved the same in November.

Many voters also said yes to higher taxes. In Arizona, a site of the Red for Ed teachers strikes in 2018 that demanded better funding for public education, a ballot measure to raise taxes on the wealthy to hire more teachers and school personnel and raise their pay was a winner. Voters in a few other places — the Portland, Ore. area; St. Louis; and statewide in Colorado — also approved increasing taxes in to fund early childhood education.

The measure in Portland is particularly notable not just because it will eventually raise $202 million a year, but also because of what it spends the money on. All 3- and 4-year-olds in the county Portland is in will get free, full-day preschool while pre-K teacher pay will be raised to rival that of kindergarten teachers, making it one of the most robust programs in the country.

Coloradans also voted for a slight increase in payroll taxes to help fund a public paid family-leave program. State residents now have the honor of being the first in the country to approve paid family leave directly, after their lawmakers couldn’t manage to pass it for six years.

Higher taxes didn’t win the day everywhere. Colorado voters also approved a reduction in the income tax. In California, even as voters passed some criminal justice reform measures, they said no to an initiative to change commercial property taxes to raise more funding for the public school system.

But overall, this year’s ballot votes aren’t an anomaly. These are all consistently popular policies. A higher minimum wage has enjoyed nearly a quarter-century of going undefeated at the ballot box. Even a near doubling of the federal minimum garners strong support: two-thirds of Americans, including a majority of moderate Republicans, back a $15 minimum wage. Paid family leave is apparently a no-brainer, as more than 80 percent of voters support it, including strong majorities of Republicans.

Even higher taxes, which are supposedly anathema to the American way, fare well in public polls. Americans have long felt that the rich don’t pay enough in taxes, while over the last decade a majority has come around to using higher taxes to redistribute wealth. Promise to put those taxes to use for a specific and popular good, like early education, and you appear to win over even more people.

And yet the federal minimum wage has stayed stuck at $7.25 an hour for over a decade, the longest stretch we’ve ever gone without a raise. The United States is the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid family leave. We also devote a much smaller share of our gross domestic product to early education than virtually all other developed countries, while ours is a relatively low tax country.

The public often doesn’t connect policy preferences with politicians. Which party consistently champions a higher minimum wage? Mr. Biden’s. Which works against it and even has some members who have called for the current minimum to be abolished altogether? The other guys.

Mr. Biden also promised paid family leave and higher taxes on the rich to fund benefits for everyone else, positions that have become core Democratic Party planks in recent years. And yet Florida shows that Americans can favor these policies but not necessarily the candidates who promise to act on them.

The disconnect is partly the result of a lack of bold, clear action. Some voters may deliberately favor divided government; others may balk at the idea that Republicans could really oppose something like paid leave. But many more want better pay and benefits, yet don’t believe that Democrats will really deliver them.

Mr. Biden faces myriad devastating problems when he takes office, first among them an uncontrolled pandemic. But he would be smart to prioritize the things voters have just approved for some of his earliest actions. A higher minimum wage, paid family leave and taxing the wealthy to support early education are bread-and-butter policies that address the very real economic problems Americans have long faced and that are even more acute now.

Mr. Biden can get a jump start without Congress by requiring higher wages and paid family leave at federal contractors, increasing living standards for hundreds of thousands of Americans. But the rest of it will require cooperation from Congress. Should Democrats prevail in Georgia and control the Senate, these should be among the first items on their list, and even if they don’t, they shouldn’t just be dropped in a spasm of premature pessimism.

The president-elect can’t just act, however. He has to tell the public that this is what the Democratic Party stands for. Mr. Biden’s former boss recently made a point he should heed. “In my first couple of years in office, I think I had an unwarranted faith that if we did the right thing and implemented good policies, then people would know,” Barack Obama told NPR’s Michel Martin. “We didn’t sell it hard enough.”

Mr. Biden needs to go bold, especially on Americans’ very real material needs, and he needs to brag about it when he does.

Bryce Covert (@brycecovert) is a contributor at The Nation and a contributing opinion writer.

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