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Biden’s Policies Propose Minor Changes in a Time of Crisis

Biden assured wealthy donors that under his leadership, “nothing would fundamentally change.” His policies reflect that.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during a rally at Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Mississippi, on March 8, 2020.

Former Vice President Joe Biden now has a plurality of delegates, following his strong performance on Super Tuesday, and polls suggest he is likely to dominate in the six states that have their primaries on March 10, and may even beat Bernie Sanders in Michigan and Washington, where polling shows recent spikes for Biden. And according to projections from FiveThirtyEight, Biden is now favored as the most likely candidate to win the nomination.

This is a dramatic turnaround from the projections just a week ago, which suggested that Sanders had a more than 10-point lead in national polling.

Given the sudden rise in Bidens prospects, its an important moment in which to review his policy platform, which sometimes tends to attract less discussion, perhaps because his policy proposals overall seem to match a claim Biden himself made at a fundraiser in Manhattan last June, when he reassured wealthy donors that unlike more progressive candidates, he wouldnt call for dramatic transfers of wealth from the 1 percent to the rest of society, and under his leadership “nothing would fundamentally change.”

Health Care Access

Biden has long opposed Medicare for All, arguing last year that its better to simply build on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and more recently saying there isn’t majority support for Medicare for All among Democrats (even though polling shows there is). His plan includes improvements at the margins, such as increasing the tax credits created through the ACA, in order to ensure that the maximum a family pays on the individual market is 8.5 percent of household income. The most progressive element of Biden’s plan is his inclusion of a public option. As a part of his health care plan, Biden proposes rolling back the Trump tax cuts for the wealthy, and increasing the rate investors pay on long-term capital gains (currently at 20 percent) — though he doesn’t specify what the new rate should be.

Abortion Rights and Access

Meanwhile, Biden has not indicated that he has the clarity or decisiveness necessary to beat back current attacks on abortion rights and access to abortion care within the frame of health care. Biden’s record on abortion rights includes past support for the Hyde amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion, but Biden reversed his position on Hyde last June. Biden gave confusing answers about reproductive care during his New York Times candidate interview, claiming that there are organizations that allow people to get abortions for free. But as New York Times reporter Lauren Kelley noted, it’s unclear what programs Biden meant, apart from small, grassroots abortion funds. (Planned Parenthood is a medical provider which accepts insurance, but they do not provide abortions for free without insurance). Biden also did not answer when asked by The Times if he would make misoprostol and mifepristone — medication abortion — available over the counter.

Disability Rights

On disability rights, Biden also has yet to articulate a strong way forward. Biden does not have a dedicated disability plan — while the Democratic field was still plentiful, this stood out in particular as he was the only leading candidate without one. In the absence of a dedicated plan, a page on his campaign website includes snippets from his other plans, such as the Biden Plan for Older Americans,” the “Biden Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice” and his plans on health care and education. Biden would do well to borrow the strong elements of the Sanders plan on disability, such as the elimination of the explicit marriage penalty currently endured by U.S. residents receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a program for people who are blind, disabled and/or over 65 years old. If two SSI recipients get married, their benefits are cut by 25 percent; if an SSI recipient lives with another person and shares household expenses, it’s considered an in-kind” source of income, and SSI benefits are reduced.

Criminal Legal Policy

Biden has attempted to re-write his legacy as one of the main champions of the 1994 crime bill, and you can see this in his platform on criminal legal issues. He supports ending cash bail and the federal government’s use of private prisons, and would pressure states to do the same. He supports eliminating the very mandatory minimums he was in part responsible for creating (with his Anti-Drug Abuse Act that created sentencing disparities between cocaine and crack). But he remains to the right of the progressives on several key issues. He thinks marijuana should be decriminalized, not legalized. Biden opposes extending the right to vote to people who are incarcerated; Sanders would enfranchise everyone. Sanders wants to end solitary confinement; Biden would preserve it in certain cases like protecting the life of an imprisoned person,” though his website does not explain why that would be necessary.


Biden doesn’t support decriminalizing border-crossing and other immigration violations. When asked by The Washington Post where he stood on abolishing or restructuring U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Biden did not answer. Biden has faced pressure from immigrant rights groups like the undocumented youth-led United We Dream Action, whose Free to Move, Free to Stay platform calls for a moratorium on deportations in the first 100 days. In February, he finally committed to a moratorium on deportations, but has said he would make an exception for those who commit felonies. Sanders was the first to commit to a moratorium, but the campaign has partially walked it back, saying that Sanders would still deport violent criminals.”

Democratic Process Reforms

Biden declined to participate in the grassroots, constituent-engagement group Indivisible’s scorecard, so the group used his public record to rank him on their Day 1 Democracy Agenda,” a marker of a candidate’s willingness to tackle the challenges of the Senate filibuster. Biden earned less than 50 percent, as he is actively opposed to eliminating the filibuster or expanding the Supreme Court.

Judicial Seats

Should the Democrats win in November, they will face a challenge in a judicial system stacked with 187 new Trump appointments. Biden infamously said that Republicans would have an epiphany” once Trump is out of office, and work with Democrats again. But at a Federalist Society dinner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the most consequential decision he’s ever made was his decision not to let President Barack Obama fill Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat.

Housing and Homelessness

Indivisible’s questionnaire wasn’t the only one that Biden did not answer. He also did not respond to a housing and homelessness questionnaire from The New York Times (the only other candidate not to respond was Rep. Tulsi Gabbard). The housing plan on Biden’s website is paltry compared to that of the remaining candidates. Biden proposes a $100 billion affordable housing fund, including $65 billion in incentives” to construct or rehabilitate affordable housing. But the phrase public housing” doesn’t appear once in the plan, and it’s unclear how much in the incentives are meant to deal with the estimated $70 billion backlog in repairs needed to public housing, following decades of underinvestment. Just as with his health care plan, the focus in Biden’s housing plan is more on incentives to the private market than on large-scale investment by the government in public goods. By contrast, Sanders’s housing plan proposes $2.5 trillion in funding to build nearly 10 million permanently affordable housing units.

Climate Policy

Biden’s climate plan is a moderate vision that is mostly a continuation of Obama-era policies — which climate activists feel are not urgent enough to address the climate crisis. Biden is not in favor of banning fracking, though he does call for a ban on oil and gas development on public lands — something Elizabeth Warren was the first to call for. Biden is bullish on carbon capture and sequestration, which the climate organization Oil Change International has criticized, as it’s a long way from being commercially viable.

In a reversal of his past policy, Biden is now calling for increasing corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, which requires car and light-truck manufacturers to improve efficiency. During his time in the Senate, however, Biden voted against CAFE standards five times. Biden signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, but Friends of the Earth noted he took money from fossil fuel companies days prior to signing the pledge, and attended a fundraiser with a co-founder of a fossil fuel company.

Resistance to Pressure From Grassroots Movements

If Biden ends up becoming the Democratic nominee, progressive activists will be faced with the task of trying to push many of these more centrist policies to the left, but thus far Biden has not responded well to such pressure when challenged. When confronted by activists from the Sunrise Movement — a grassroots movement of young people fighting to stop the climate crisis that also has a political action organization to support progressive candidates — Biden held and shook the wrists of activist Michaelyn Mankel and told activist Lily Levin look at my record, child.” And when immigration activist Carlos Rojas asked Biden about the 3 million people deported during the Obama administration, Biden said, You should vote for Trump.”

Biden’s responses when bird-dogged by activists do not inspire much confidence that he has any interest in listening to pressure from movements. Taken together with his moderate policy positions — many of which are focused on the same incentivize the private market” approach that’s failed to create lasting, transformational change — it’s no wonder that this unwillingness to hear criticism is a source of concern for many progressives.

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