A reality check on Joe Biden’s Democratic convention promises

Some could easily happen, others stalled during two Obama terms

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden delivers his acceptance speech in Wilmington, Delaware, last month to close the virtual Democratic National Convention.  (Olivier Douliery AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden delivers his acceptance speech in Wilmington, Delaware, last month to close the virtual Democratic National Convention. (Olivier Douliery AFP/Getty Images)
Posted August 21, 2020 at 6:06pm

Presidential nominee Joe Biden and other speakers at the Democratic National Convention laid out a bold and ambitious to-do list this week. Some of it was thematic, like the promises to unify the country and make the government more accountable to the public.

But there were also specific plans in Biden’s speech accepting the nomination Thursday night, many contained in one section building off the theme to “build back better” from the current economic downturn. Those plans likely rely on his party winning control of the Senate and House in November.

But while some might be low-hanging fruit, others are a reach even with solid control and the elimination of the filibuster in the Senate. Here’s a look at what he said — and the reality confronting those promises.

COVID-19

“We’ll develop and deploy rapid tests with results available immediately. We'll make the medical supplies and protective equipment our country needs. And we’ll make them here in America. So we will never again be at the mercy of China and other foreign countries in order to protect our own people.”

Reality: The U.S.’s capacity to conduct COVID-19 tests has greatly improved since the early days of the pandemic. New testing technologies, like rapid tests, pooled testing and saliva-based tests, are helping boost capacity. President Donald Trump’s administration announced this week it was invoking the Defense Production Act to gain first priority to ship rapid tests to nursing homes.

Democrats have criticized Trump for not using the Defense Production Act more aggressively to develop medical supplies and equipment that have been in high demand and sometimes short supply. Lawmakers in both parties have expressed concern since before the health crisis about the U.S.’s dependence on foreign countries, particularly China, for medical supplies.

Infrastructure

“Together, we can and will rebuild our economy. And when we do, we’ll not only build back, we’ll build back better, with modern roads, bridges, highways, broadband, ports and airports as a new foundation for economic growth. With pipes that transport clean water to every community.”

Reality: Biden has suggested a $2 trillion investment in infrastructure, an echo of promises Trump himself has made. But the rub, always, is how best to pay for it. 

The current system for funding highways, bridges and transit is primarily the federal gas tax — a tax that hasn’t been raised since 1993 and has lost purchasing power as cars and trucks have become increasingly fuel-efficient. Other than plundering the general fund, no one has come up with an acceptable alternative to pay for the nation’s infrastructure needs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undercut that financing tool even more, as drivers have opted to stay at home, meaning less gas tax revenue. At the same time, transit agencies across the country face the possibility of bankruptcy thanks to plummeting ridership. 

Biden may want to invest heavily in infrastructure, but he’ll need a better financing mechanism to make that promise a reality.

Health care

“We’ll build back better with ... a health care system that lowers premiums, deductibles, and drug prices by building on the Affordable Care Act [Trump’s] trying to rip away.”

Reality: Biden left out any mention of enacting a public option, or a government-run health care plan that would compete with private insurance. The health care industry and employer groups are already mobilizing against that proposal with ad campaigns warning that it would raise taxes and become the third-largest government program. If Democrats craft legislation to create a public option under a Biden administration, progressives will likely try to push the policy to the left, and they have already notched a win by securing a commitment in the party platform for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to administer a future program, rather than a private company.

By focusing on lowering premiums and out-of-pocket health care costs, Biden is putting the emphasis on goals that unite Democrats and may be implemented more quickly than establishing a new program. Lowering drug prices is a bipartisan goal, but legislation has stalled in the Senate this year and also faces industry opposition. 

Immigration

“We’ll build back better with … an immigration system that powers our economy and reflects our values.” 

Reality: In July, the Unity Task Force created by Biden and his former rival, Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, pledged to create a 100-day moratorium on deportations, pending a review on “current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP.”

Some conservative immigration groups asserted that the moratorium is unrealistic.

“I don’t think he is going to honor his pledge of halting all deportations because it’s more complicated than that,”said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for less immigration. 

“What are they going to do with all of the criminals that have already finished their prison sentences and are ordered to be removed from the U.S.? Are they going to be letting these criminals on the loose after they finished their sentences?” Krikorian said to CQ Roll Call.

Labor

“We’ll build back better with ... newly empowered labor unions. With equal pay for women. With rising wages you can raise a family on. Yes, we’re going to do more than praise our essential workers. We’re finally going to pay them.”

Reality: Biden, who backs increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 from the current $7.25 an hour, features a lengthy list of ways he’d protect workers’ rights on his campaign website — everything from ensuring that workers in the “gig economy” receive benefits and protections to a “card check” process that makes it easier for workers to unionize.

Michael Saltsman, managing director for the Employment Policies Institute, a fiscally conservative labor think tank, said many of the items on Biden’s list reflect the to-do list that President Barack Obama’s administration was unable to complete.

“Unions are sort of saying, ‘You’d better get it done this time,’” Saltsman said, referring to card check and other efforts aimed at making it easier for workers to unionize.

A $15 minimum wage eliminating the tip credit, which allows employers to pay tipped employees less than the minimum wage, would expose “fault lines” that could make such an increase a tougher lift, Saltsman said.

He said a more realistic proposal would be “something like a $12 minimum wage.”

He said that even before the pandemic, the Congressional Budget Office estimated raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would eliminate 3.7 million jobs. 

“Proposing a really dramatic increase in the minimum wage becomes a little bit of a head-scratcher,” he said. “Because if it’s a bad idea in good economic times, it’s kind of an insane idea when restaurants have been wiped out by a pandemic.”

Climate change

“We can, and we will, deal with climate change. It’s not only a crisis, it’s an enormous opportunity. An opportunity for America to lead the world in clean energy and create millions of new good-paying jobs in the process.”

Reality:  The coronavirus pandemic has hammered both the fossil energy and low-carbon industries in the U.S., but the ingredients exist to back up Biden’s claim.

The energy sector has seen a 14 percent decline in employment since February, according to BW Research Partnership, with the greatest losses coming from oil, natural gas and coal jobs.

A January forecast by the Energy Information Administration, based on surveys of utilities, found the majority (76 percent) of new electricity in 2020 will come from wind or solar power. And a separate report from state energy officials found the fastest-growing energy sectors are solar, wind and natural gas.

The IRS also extended in June the deadline for a tax credit for renewable projects, and the vast majority (98 percent) of power scheduled to be phased off the grid this year is expected to be from coal, natural gas or nuclear plants, as those carbon-heavy facilities shut down.

Bluntly: The nation is increasingly powering itself with renewables, which, before the pandemic hit, were among the fastest-growing industries in the country. 

Social Security

“For our seniors, Social Security is a sacred obligation, a sacred promise made. The current president is threatening to break that promise. [Trump’s] proposing to eliminate the tax that pays for almost half of Social Security without any way of making up for that lost revenue. I will not let it happen. If I’m your president, we’re going to protect Social Security and Medicare. You have my word.”

Reality: Biden is referring to Trump’s executive memo, which orders the Treasury to not collect the 6.2 percent payroll tax from employees beginning Sept. 1 through the end of the year. That memo does not end this dedicated source of funding for Social Security, endangering the life of every American, as Democrats like to say. 

However, it is a deferral, which means taxpayers could be on the hook for that bill in the future. The White House has said Trump was referring to forgiving that payback requirement when he said he would support eliminating the tax.

Biden’s proposal to apply Social Security taxes (the 6.2 percent employer and 6.2 percent employee shares, which equal 12.4 percent) to those with adjusted gross income above $400,000 will help the Social Security trust fund, currently projected to hit zero in 2034, but not cure its long-term instability. 

Currently, as of 2020, Social Security payroll taxes stop at $137,700. 

The Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center estimated that Biden’s plan to collect taxes on income above $400,000 would raise $962 billion over 10 years.

Dealing with Russia

“Under President Biden, America will not turn a blind eye to Russian bounties on the heads of American soldiers. Nor will I put up with foreign interference in our most sacred democratic exercise — voting.”

Reality: Biden has made clear that he will directly address the bounties issue in conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he has also previously expressed support for threatening sanctions on large swaths of Russia’s economy if it continues to engage in election interference. 

Biden as president would have considerable authority already through multiple laws passed by Congress to impose new sanctions on Russia, and his decision to do so may depend on the degree to which Putin attempts to interfere in the election this year. But one thing is certain: A Biden presidency would likely amount to a reversal of Trump’s more friendly policies toward Russia, as well as his “America First” policies in global affairs overall.

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Niels Lesniewski, Mary Ellen McIntire, Doug Sword, Camila DeChalus, Rachel Oswald and Benjamin J. Hulac contributed to this report.