By Office of the Vice President of the United States —, Public Domain,

Body language can tell you a lot, and that picture speaks volumes. You see Joe Biden leaning in to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, reaching for him, trying to establish a connection. For his part, Pence is leaning away, protecting his most vulnerable parts from Biden’s entreaties.

This picture is the story of Joe Biden and his desperate effort to be friends with Republicans.

As Democrats, we watched in horror as President Trump, supported by Republican majorities in the House and Senate, took a wrecking ball to the policies we care about. Pack the courts with right wingers? Check. Tax cuts for the rich? Check. Obamacare only survived due to the courage and integrity of John McCain and Lisa Murkowski. Susan Collins is a story for another day.

What’s actually shocking is how little Trump has accomplished despite the best efforts of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

A friend of mine expressed the sentiment many of us are feeling. She told me that every time Republicans are in charge, they make huge changes. But when Democrats get in power, we are satisfied to hold the line. The result is a steady march to the right over time.

Remember how Reagan, upon coming into office, proposed cuts to domestic programs so shocking to then Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neil that O’Neil expected the public to rise up in outrage. Unfortunately, O’Neil was wrong, and Reagan got his tax cuts for the rich, his attack on labor, and his cuts to programs benefiting the poor and working people.

Then came the Clinton administration, enjoying majorities in Congress for its first two years in office. Rather than undoing the damage done by Reagan, Clinton fumbled the ball on health care and a stimulus package. He then proceeded to hand the keys to the kingdom to Wall Street, passing regulatory “reforms” that led directly to the financial crisis of 2007-2008. So Clinton, rather than moving us back in a progressive direction, actually moved us in the wrong way, just more slowly.

When George W. Bush took office, he involved us in an unwise, unnecessary and undeclared war in Iraq just because Saddam Hussein “tried to kill my dad.” His former oil executive Vice President Dick Cheney attacked environmental regulations mercilessly. His response to the financial crisis that exploded under his watch was to bail out the banks. And he passed another tax cut that largely benefited the rich.

Obama came into office promising change, but his revolution involved “turn[ing] the page on the ugly partisanship in Washington” and passing a bipartisan agenda in Congress. As a result, he appointed Republicans to powerful positions in his cabinet. And the Democrats he chose were friends of Wall Street, such as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and director of the National Economic Council Lawrence H. Summers, who engineered Obama’s coddling of the banks while abandoning homeowners during the financial crisis. This response was responsible for a greater shift in wealth from the middle class to the rich than just about anything else.

We did get Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank Financial reform Act passed during Obama’s first term. But both these pieces of legislation were milquetoast compared to what could have been passed had Obama taken the Trump-McConnell “take no prisoners” approach to legislation. One Independent Senator out of sixty stopped us from getting a public option in Obamacare — essentially a version of Medicare for all.

Then comes Trump, with his tax cut for the rich.

So we have Reagan, Bush and Trump aggressively pushing a pro-wealthy agenda with the Democrats, when they had any power, acquiescing. Clinton and Obama, rather than undoing this agenda, pursued policies that in some cases actually increased inequality.

The result has been striking. Since 1980, when Reagan came into office, increases in prosperity that had been widely shared since World War II separated, with the wealthy getting a steadily increasing share of America’s economic growth. From the graph above, it’s apparent that the Obama and Clinton administrations did little to reverse those trends.

Why was Obama so unsuccessful in his effort to woo Republican support? The answer is clear: Republican intransigence. Mitch McConnell, after all, said that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” How would he do this? By making sure Obama did not have legislative successes to point to. With that goal, McConnell employed every legislative tactic at his disposal to thwart Obama’s agenda.

In a televised meeting with Republicans, Obama tried desperately to get some Republican cooperation. Obama’s only requirement is that the Republican proposals be truthful and reasonable. “I am absolutely committed to working with you on these issues, but it can’t just be political assertions that aren’t substantiated when it comes to the actual details of policy,” he told then Georgia Congressman Tom Price, who became Trump’s secretary of Health and Human Services.

The Republicans would never offer any alternatives to Obamacare, which was largely based upon a proposal Republican Senators came up with in response to the Clinton health care proposal, that was ultimately adopted in Massachusetts under the leadership of Republican Governor Mitt Romney.

Inequality hurts everyone, and it is an existential threat to our democracy, as demonstrated by the Trump administration. If we are to reverse it, dramatic policy change is needed. We cannot waste another two years of majority status making marginal changes. Proposals are out there to accomplish these goals. But they will never pass if we elect another Democratic President worried about his popularity with the Republican leaders.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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