Take Their Calls, Mr. President, But Don't Take Their Bait | Opinion

Giving Donald Trump a second term might well have spelled the end of our democracy. His authoritarian antics had stressed our democratic institutions almost beyond their ability to withstand, and it took 80 million Americans to rid the White House of such a malignant force. The Republicans refused to get rid of him; the Democrats were not able to get rid of him; we the people, however, did the job.

Now that that abusive relationship is over—Donald Trump ensconced far away from the perch of power from which he did so much damage over the last four years—we have before us a different set of challenges. President Joe Biden must "build back better" in a way that doesn't just put us back on the same trajectory that led to the election of Trump in the first place.

Democrats do not have a lot of time to prove to the American people that they offer a future more compelling than one even dreamed of by the Republican Party. President Biden's goal should be a massive infusion of economic hope and opportunity into the life of the average American—not just something that will help them make it through the day, but something that will help them actually rebuild their lives. And of course, this will not be easy. In order to really heal this country, he must be willing to piss a lot of people off.

Some say Biden should move slowly in making economic alterations that create broad scale change in the lives of millions—don't turn over the apple cart, take things gradually to show bipartisan respect. But upsetting the markets should not be as important to anyone as the upset of a mother who cannot feed her child. Unity with tens of millions of Americans who desperately need help is more important than unity with those few who for their own purposes don't want to help them.

So far Biden has straddled two worlds, gunning the engine in some ways and keeping his feet on the brakes in others. On one hand, his early initiatives have been a welcome salve on some painful wounds, returning moral authority to places where it had dwindled to near nothing under the Trump administration. From ending the permit to the Keystone Pipeline to lifting the threat to America's Dreamers, from ending the Muslim ban to saying we will no longer aid Saudi Arabia's atrocious attacks on Yemen; Biden has already brought a swift return of righteousness to important areas.

But in other ways our new president is reaffirming his commitment that "nothing will fundamentally change," from appointing a recent general and Raytheon board member to head the Department of Defense (ensuring the continued outsized influence of the military industrial complex on our defense policy), to the appointment of an Obama-era neoliberal tied to the financial industry as his national bank regulator as opposed to a candidate with expertise on the racial wealth gap (insuring no serious challenge to racist dynamics within our banking system). There it is, that thing that neoliberals are so good at: change on the periphery, no change at all on the structural level.

But structural change within the U.S. economy must occur and it will occur quickly, or the Democrats will have a difficult time in 2022. Income inequality has ravaged this nation over the last 40 years, and while a Republican president started it no Democratic president has stopped it. Voters realize that; only a minority now thinks that either major political party is fully dedicated to their rescue from the horrors of their economic circumstances. For all Biden's talk of healing the country, the only way to do so is to bring tens of millions of people out of the desperate economic conditions created not only by the pandemic but also by the economic policies of the last 40 years.

President Joe Biden speaking
President Joe Biden speaks after signing an executive order related to American manufacturing in the South Court Auditorium of the White House complex on January 25, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

With a portrait of Franklin Roosevelt now hanging over the mantle in his Oval Office, President Biden sees Roosevelt in his line of vision but I'll bet Obama remains on his mind. It must have been difficult for both Biden and Obama to see their legacy rejected in the 2016 election, and it's imperative for Democrats to understand why it happened in order to break free of the trajectory that led to it. While Democrats cling to their explanations regarding James Comey's grandstanding with the emails, misogyny and the Electoral College—all of which are true—what was also at work in Hillary Clinton's loss was something far more visceral.

Only two presidential candidates that year–Trump and Bernie Sanders–acknowledged the pain and legitimate rage of tens of millions of Americans who were anything but swayed by Clinton's argument that "we need to continue the success of the last eight years." Many were angered by it, in fact. "What success?" they fairly screamed it into the voting booth. "Lady, I'm drowning here."

They were drowning, and they are still drowning. In fact, the pandemic has pushed them further underwater than ever before. If people are not rescued from their economic despair in a profound and meaningful way, and quickly, then there's no reason to believe the Democrats will retain power through the next election cycle. Nothing short of structural change within a system that produced such deep economic injustice to begin with will do the job of winning America's future–for the Democrats, for free market capitalism, or for our country. President Biden will hopefully be inspired by Roosevelt's words in 1933: "It's time for the country to become fairly radical for a generation." That radicalism made Roosevelt a lot of enemies among those he called "economic royalists," captains of industry who screamed epithets at him such as "socialist" and "enemy of capitalism." But Roosevelt, dedicated to uplifting the lives of millions of people whose lives had been ravaged by the Great Depression, responded simply, "I welcome their hatred." He knew what he had to do, and he did it.

There are tens of millions of Americans today whose lives are similarly ravaged, and becoming "fairly radical for a generation" is as called for today as it was during the Great Depression. Without an immediate infusion of direct cash relief, continuing monthly direct cash sustenance while the pandemic lasts and beyond, Medicare For All, a cancellation of college loan debt, and free tuition at state colleges, universities and technical schools, the most we will do is keep people from drowning. Such a minimal goal is unworthy of the richest country in the world.

Of course, congressional Republicans are screaming and howling, throwing childish tantrums about unity as though unity means that I always have to agree with you. They have nothing else to say in the face of the most cruel and devastating evidence that under their leadership, hundreds of thousands of people were literally left to die. I'm sure corporatist Democratic donors are calling in, as well, giving smarmy recommendations such as, "Sure, I want him to help a lot of people. But make sure he doesn't go too far!"

President Biden had made a theme of his campaign that one of the reasons he was well suited for the job is that when it came to domestic and international leaders, "Those guys know me." An example would, of course, be his 36-year relationship with Mitch McConnell. But the president would do well to remember, as I'm sure he does, how far it got Obama to play nice with people who had no intention of playing nice with him. I know you know those guys, Mr. President. But please remember what you said so eloquently to your appointees on your first day in office: your administration works for the people and not the other way around. Whether it's Republicans who don't want you to help anyone—or Democrats who want you to help as many as you can but make sure you don't upset the neoliberal order—take their calls, of course, but be careful not to take their bait.

Marianne Williamson is a Newsweek columnist, best-selling author, political activist and spiritual thought leader. She is founder of Project Angel Food and co-founder of the Peace Alliance, and was the first candidate in the 2020 presidential primary to make reparations a pillar of her campaign. She is the author of 13 books, among them Healing the Soul of America and A Politics of Love.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.