Perhaps the fullest articulation of this new Biden optimism comes from Saikat Chakrabarti, the firebrand organizer who co-founded Justice Democrats — the three-year-old group known for primarying centrist incumbents of its own party — and then became chief of staff to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In his current role as president of progressive think tank New Consensus, Chakrabarti issued a supportive memo to President-elect Biden, encouraging him to go big on his plans for economic development.
“Biden ran a historically progressive campaign in terms of what he talked about doing. His whole ‘build back better’ plan talks about a multitrillion-dollar project of rebuilding America’s economy,” says Chakrabarti. “Politically, I think it’s very smart. What makes me optimistic is the fact that he even campaigned on this.”
Beyond its embrace of Biden, the memo is noteworthy for its ideas about how Democrats can get anything at all done in a Washington with Mitch McConnell as a likely spoiler in the Senate. It calls for the incoming president to exercise his executive power, treating the moment like a 2008-style emergency, using the nation’s Federal Reserve banking system to lend money to “green” businesses and transform regional Fed banks into an engine of decentralized economic development throughout the country.
Is this marriage going to last? And what happens if establishment Dems don’t play ball?
“The Justice Democrats have 10 members in Congress, and the House Democrats have — I think it’s a six-seat majority,” says Chakrabarti. “Now they can negotiate as mature partners at a table. They have real power.”
POLITICO Magazine spoke with Chakrabarti this week. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.
What makes you optimistic that progressives can make policy gains even if Mitch McConnell controls the Senate?
Stepping back a bit, Biden ran a historically progressive campaign in terms of what he talked about doing. His whole “build back better” plan talks about a multitrillion-dollar project of rebuilding America’s economy, where he’s going to build, as he puts it, electric cars, solar panels and wind turbines in America. If you’re in one of the thousands of deindustrialized towns in the Rust Belt or South where you used to be able to get a $30 or $40 an hour, good-paying union job, and then all of a sudden NAFTA happened and the job disappeared, he’s saying to you, “I’m going to come and build a factory, making high-wage jobs in your town.” Politically, I think it’s very smart.
What makes me optimistic is the fact that he even campaigned on this. For so long, it was a task to even convince major-party candidates that this is a problem — that we need to be intentionally building and rebuilding the American economy. Just the fact that he’s talking about it — and at a tune of multitrillion dollars — that’s very optimistic.
He can do this even if Mitch McConnell is running the Senate and trying to block him. He can essentially do what both Barack Obama and George W. Bush did with the Fed in 2008 during the recession, when the federal government — the executive branch, the Treasury — worked with the Fed to basically create a financing scheme of creating liquidity and low-interest, long-term loans to bail out Wall Street banks in a crisis.
Biden should do that exact same thing with the Fed, but instead of loans to bail out banks, create long-term investments and loans into American industry and into jobs to do exactly what Biden just campaigned on: build electric-car manufacturing plants, build clean-steel plants, build solar panel factories, build all these means of creating jobs in every community all across America. And also, use our Federal Reserve bank to provide low-interest financing to small businesses. This is a way to give them the money they need to survive past this pandemic and rebuild the economy in a way that roars.
You’re optimistic about the possibilities to work with President Biden. I can’t help but feel that’s a shift from the way the left has recently approached its relationship with Democratic leadership. It was just two years ago when Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez joined the Sunrise Movement’s sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office. This feels like a substantial change — less confrontational. Has the left’s strategy has changed? What’s different?
Yeah. I think it’s different and it’s not. So, from the start, I don’t actually know if I would … I have never thought of myself as a “left” or “progressive.”
Like, the stuff that we’re proposing — the “Green New Deal” — it’s sort of basic economic development, which is not a partisan thing in any other country. It became a “progressive” thing to suggest Hamiltonian economics, which is weird loop of the brain, but whatever.
We’re proposing this as kind of a unifying thing for the country. My approach — speaking just as myself — has always been: We’re going to present a solution. We’re going to show there’s no reason not to do the solution. And then, if leaders don’t do it — with no excuse — we have to pressure them. Then, of course you have to do sit-ins; you have to show that they’re not doing it, because then they’ll at least get embarrassed into doing it. I hope they don’t have to be embarrassed into doing it; I hope they will lead.
I think Biden has a historic chance to be an FDR-style leader who isn’t just relying on pressure to do the next bit.
So how should the left judge a Biden presidency?
“How many people stop going hungry” is a good one. There’s 50 million people at risk of going hungry this winter. So that should be cause enough to try to solve the problem.
Honestly, if Biden is able to keep his own campaign promises — if he’s able to actually create millions of high-wage jobs, get us out of a depression and the pandemic — that’ll be pretty good. And I think it will show in 2022. If he’s able to make a real difference in people’s lives, and get people in places like Janesville, Wisconsin, from making $12 an hour back to making $40 or $50 an hour, people will vote for him and for Democrats because they’ll know that we actually did something with the power we were gifted.
Going back to the question about whether the left’s strategy has changed since 2018, you said yes and no. I think I heard mostly the “no” part of that answer. What’s the “yes”?
The major thing I think has changed is there were some … The basic idea of getting major leaders in the Democratic Party to acknowledge economic development as a means of intentionally talking about industrialism and building things in America and bringing jobs back — that just didn’t exist. I think there’s only so far you can get trying to convince people in one-on-one private conversations. You know, if you’re missing it, you’re missing it.
What the sit-in around the Green New Deal did was it made it such a national topic that it was no longer possible for Democratic leaders to completely ignore — both in terms of tackling climate change as a major issue and the idea the federal government actually having a role in intentionally doing things to solve these problems.
The place where the conversation is at is a much healthier, better place now. Where we’re talking about real solutions that could potentially get to the scale of the problem. So at this point, I don’t think we need to keep yelling at them that they don’t get it — because they seem to.
Now, the next step is going to be: What are they actually to do about it? Part of the purpose of putting out a paper like this is to preemptively show that you can do everything — even if we don’t win the Senate. If we win the Senate seats in Georgia, then of course, we can do everything we want. But even if you don’t win it, you can do it. It’s about whether you want to do it.
How would you characterize the current state of the left?
You know, I honestly don’t know if I’m the best person to ask. [Laughter] But I can try to give my take. I feel very proud of where Justice Democrats has gone. When I was running it, no one would pick up my phone calls. We were a bunch of, like, wackos in a building just trying to get a little bit of daylight. That was sort of our goal: Let’s just do whatever we can to get a little bit of daylight to get some ideas out there.
The people who’ve become leaders of the left in U.S. politics, they’re in real seats of power now. The Justice Democrats have 10 members in Congress, and the House Democrats have — I think it’s a six-seat majority. Now they can negotiate as mature partners at a table. They have real power. That’s a healthy place to be, and I think it’s a really good place to be, especially if they’re able to productively create change for the vast majority of Americans over the next two years — not just wins for the left, but everybody.
I don’t actually follow intraparty politics nearly as closely as I did when I was running Justice Democrats. Most people in America don’t care about the “left vs. center” fight within the Democratic Party; they care about what’s actually going to work, but they don’t care if the things that work come from the left or center or right or wherever.
People aren’t up at night wondering about the status of the Abigail Spanberger vs. AOC debate within the House Democratic Caucus?
I hope not! If they are, then I’ve completely misjudged American politics.
A lot of what your policy ambitions for the Biden years rely on the executive branch acting on its own. Coming off four years of the Trump administration policymaking largely through the executive branch action rather than passing laws, do you see that as a problem?
Well, the thing is that we’re not really proposing anything new for the executive branch. Everything we’re talking about, the executive branch can and already habitually does. The pieces of the plan essentially involve Biden creating a National Development Council — a set of leaders cutting across agencies in the executive branch — to come up with a national economic development strategy. They’d take “build back better” and make a five- or 10-year-long-term strategy to actually do it. And they would work with the Fed.
Biden’s role here is about leading and creating the space for the Fed and executive branch to do these functions. His role would be going out and having a news conference with the heads of the big auto companies, and saying, “You guys are going to get money to build electric cars. Tell us what you’re going to do. Tell us how many jobs you are going to make.” And then hold them accountable.
The thing we’re proposing that is a bit newer is using the powers that the executive branch tends to use only in emergency situations, and not just use them to save Wall Street. In the past several decades, the Fed has seen its role largely as being a lender of last resort to banks, and that being the way to stabilize the economy. But if you look back into the history of the Fed and its original purpose, it was really meant to be a network of regional development banks. We think the Fed should go back to doing that. That’s exactly what we need.
Currently, the way the Fed works, a lot of power and lending ability has been concentrated in New York. We have these 12 regional [Federal Reserve banks] that are supposed to cover all the other regions of the country. Why don’t we give them the power to actually develop their regions? The Dallas Fed should be developing the Southwest region, because people in New York don’t know what people in Texas or Montana want or need in order to develop their economies.
Is it hard to get people excited about Fed policy? One of the other major proposals you’ve been involved in, the Green New Deal, is politically compelling — it’s pithy as a slogan and gives people an overall conceptual framework. I would imagine Fed policy is a harder sell.
Yeah. And that’s OK. Fed policy shouldn’t it be the exciting part! The exciting part should be the stuff you’re going to build.
The reason the Green New Deal is exciting is we’re talking about all the national projects we would take on to solve climate change: “There’s a problem: Climate change. Here’s a solution.” Similarly, Biden shouldn’t go up on stage and be like, “I’m going to implement low-interest rates in a new lending facility from the Fed.” No.
Go up there and say to folks in Janesville, “You guys lost your big GM factory in 2008. And since then, you’ve been told you’ve gotta be OK making one-fourth of the wages you used to make, because that’s the best you’ve got.” The Republicans have said that the only way to reverse that is to sell the farm — to convince GM to bring the factory back, we’ve got to give them every tax incentive, let them dump stuff into the rivers and cut wages by half. That’s the Republican strategy. And the Democratic strategy actually hasn’t been any better: Their strategy has said, “Well, we don’t know what to do. We’re going to keep fighting for high wages, because we should. But we don’t know what to do.” Once this factory leaves the town, the factory is gone. Everything is devastated. Everyone knows that when the factory leaves, there’s no hope left. You’re just devastated. All you have left are these low-wage service jobs. Biden should be saying, “Actually, there is another way.”
There’s a tendency, especially among progressives, to sometimes just talk about how everything is devastated and we’re at rock bottom. And we’re not, actually. We still have quite a bit to work with. The problem is we’re letting it get to rock bottom.
Look at the iPhone. Federal funding — mostly our government, but also other governments — invented all the components in the iPhone. Then, because of the great American system, we had a great entrepreneur and a great company put it all together and create this amazing, high-value device. Then, when it came time to build it and create thousands of amazing jobs, countries like Switzerland and South Korea and Germany — not places where you think of low-wage jobs — built [the components that make up] more than half of the value of the iPhone. And we just let it go.
We can actually proactively build. We can make it so that the reason GM doesn’t leave Janesville is because it doesn’t make sense to, because we’re creating this ecosystem of economic growth and development the way we did in Silicon Valley — which is one of the last bastions of these kind of business ecosystems. Digital work is the thing that would make the most sense to outsource. But it hasn’t, and that’s because we spent a lot of time and money — and federal money — creating this ecosystem where it makes the most amount of sense to do your business.
That’s a kind of pro-business thing. It might sound weird: Me, as a progressive, saying we should be a “pro-business country.” But let’s create an ecosystem where it would be stupid financially as a business decision not to build your stuff in America, not because we’re letting you dump in our creeks. Biden should be talking about that part of it.
You mentioned the importance of appealing to the “vast majority” of Americans. And reading your recent memo, geographical diversity seems like a priority in a lot of the language you use. Many of the Justice Democrats in Congress are based in large cities or metropolitan areas. Is there a goal to branch out beyond that urban core? When did geographical diversity become a priority?
It’s always been baked in there at the core. Justice Democrats, in our first cycle, we had 80 candidates running all across America, in both red and blue districts. Most people in politics think it’s silly to start off that way and try to tackle the whole nation. Why did we do this geographically diverse thing? The answer really is that the kind of economic rejuvenation that happens in moments where the crisis is this big tends to require the will of a large part of the American people.
We saw this with FDR: He was able to do a lot because he had a lot of the country behind him. Obama got a lot of the country behind him; I have some mixed feelings about what he was able to accomplish with that, but he managed to get a lot of country behind him.
In those moments, the usual partisan divides can fall apart. And that’s what we’re hoping and betting on. Can we get past the current divisions and partisanship by presenting a new message of just fixing the damn problems and doing it in a way big enough that it’s believable?
Everyone worries about polarization and the country becoming two countries where we’re so divided and at each other’s throats. And I think we can solve that. There is a way to get there by showing and not just telling.
With Biden, the reason I keep saying that I hope that he’s able to accomplish what he campaigned on is that I do actually think that Biden needs to — and can, through direct economic impacts and that improving the lives of millions of people — get a vast majority of the American people behind him and behind Democratic Party. That’s the right path to unity.
Some parts of the country are more willing to give him the benefit of doubt. Many parts of the country are not. And for those parts especially, he’s going to have to show that what he can do in a very, very big way — which, to me, almost means you start with the economic benefits in deep red states and the Rust Belt and rural Wisconsin, rural Michigan, rural New York, and build from there. Those are your testing grounds for all these projects.
How do you read the results of the 2020 election? Do you see them as a vindication? A warning sign? Something else?
It’s hard to have, like, Big Takes. But I think it’s especially hard to have with national elections when there’s not really a national message. It’s like there was one set of results for Biden — who had a national message, running for president — but it’s harder when you go down-ballot, because the Democrats don’t really run as a party.
I never really saw a message of, “You should vote us all in, because we will do X.” It was more like everyone had their own individual race. And unfortunately, in a lot of those races — in the middle of an economic depression, where millions of people are without jobs — candidates didn’t talk about the economy. It’s insane. It’s campaign malpractice. So many of these candidates in moderate districts ran against Trump, rather than saying anything about what they would do. And when you don’t campaign on what you’re going to do, then all kinds of kind of sideshows take the take the spotlight — like in 2016, when Hillary’s emails became the spotlight, or this or that anti-Trump or pro-Trump conspiracy theory.
It’s encouraging that Biden ran toward the economy in a big way and didn’t lose on an issue where Trump was supposedly still stronger than him. General Democratic politicking has this idea that if there’s some issue where the Republicans are leading, let’s go talk about something else rather than trying to win on that issue. Biden didn’t follow that strategy, and that’s encouraging.
As you mentioned, the Justice Democrats have a foothold in Congress. As plans begin for the 2022 congressional races, should we expect that there will be attempts to build on those wins in the House with primaries against moderate Democrats in the Senate?
Yeah. If the definition of “moderate” is you don’t want to do anything right now, in the middle of a depression, then I absolutely hope so. One hundred percent. You get elected to Congress to do stuff. If you don’t want to do anything, go retire. It’s just unacceptable.
I don’t think it’s a left or right issue to say we’re in a big crisis right now and need to do something about it. But there will be people who are scared to do something about it. More often than not in politics, if you act, you get blamed for acting. And even if you don’t actually get blamed for acting, that seems to be the takeaway for a lot of people: You do something, and everyone punishes you for it. But it’s never that people punish you for not doing anything.
So that creates a certain set of incentives for people who are currently elected into office. Folks like that, who don’t want to do stuff, they have to be primaried. You do have to pressure them with taking their seat if they don’t act. You need the countervailing force. That’s the only way to get them scared enough to actually do something or they’ll lose their seat and someone else can do it for them.
When you talk about folks who need to be primaried, do you have anyone specific in mind?
I’m giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. [Laughter] I’m hoping that people have seen the light. Honestly! One of the mistakes people very often make in politics is that things change way faster than you realize. And that’s not just for people who got elected to Congress in 1970; that’s for the people who just got elected.
The way things were in 2018 is not the way things are in 2020. And even more importantly, where the public was in 2018 is not where the public is in 2020. That has shifted so much faster than politics. And the question is: Who’s smart enough to realize where the public’s at now, and who isn’t?