The 2024 presidential race is taking shape. It looks like a choice between the sensible, the mad and the missing. Joe Biden seems intent on running on his record, a sensible route for the incumbent. His major challenger, the inescapable Donald Trump, is replaying his madcap candidacy – his program a mixture of resentment, racism, bluster, and victimization. What’s missing are the big challenges that America can’t avoid and can’t seem to face.
In this first term, Joe Biden has surely exceeded expectations. He has broken with the conservative era’s trickle-down economics, and passed major initiatives to rebuild America’s decrepit infrastructure, to revive manufacturing and move away from our disastrous trade policies, and to launch an industrial policy focused on renewable energy and energy efficiency.
He’s enjoyed record low unemployment even as inflation has plummeted, and real wages have started to go up. He’s voiced his support for unions and equal justice under the law, even if his initiatives in those areas have been blocked by Republicans and a couple renegade Democrats in the Senate. He will run as a competent leader who got things done.
Trump, who dominates the Republican field even as indictments rain down upon him, doesn’t really have an agenda – or rather his agenda is himself – “I alone can fix it.” He promises, for example, to end the Ukraine war in 24 hours, because he says he can. What he offers is grievance and theater. He rails against an America that is a wasteland, three short years after he made it great again. For substance, he offers postures – send troops to the border, get tougher on the Chinese, double down on oil and coal and rollback climate and environmental legislation.
What’s missing in this face-off is the necessary; the set of challenges that we can’t avoid but refuse to face. For example, America’s health care system fails us. It costs nearly twice as much per capita as the health systems of other advanced countries while providing worse care and far worse medical outcomes. Our life expectancy is declining, a stunning measure of its failure. Millions remain without health insurance. Many millions more struggle to afford the care that they need. Private equity barons are merging hospitals, purging nurses, and slashing services. Medicare is rapidly being privatized, even as costs soar and coverage declines.
When I ran for president in 1988, I called for a national health care plan – Medicare for all.
Bernie Sanders repeated the call when he ran in 2016 and 2020. Congressional progressives led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal have introduced legislation and held hearings on a sensible plan that would save money while covering more people and lowering costs to patients.
This issue isn’t in the debate – but health care costs and the crisis of care are escalating rapidly, and it simply cannot be avoided.
Or consider the continuing scourge of children in poverty. The expanded Child Tax Credit that Joe Biden succeeded in passing as part of his American Rescue Plan reached more than 61 million children in 36 million households. Experts estimated that it reduced childhood poverty by 30 percent. Surely it makes more sense and costs less to invest in head start, childcare and day care at the front side of life than welfare and jail care on the backside. Yet, the expanded tax credit was ended after one year – and childhood poverty in America is worse than any other industrial country.
This list can go on. Inequality is at obscene extremes, but passing fair taxes that would enable us to strengthen Social Security and invest in public education faces a Republican Party that is universally opposed to lifting any taxes on the wealthy. College debt is higher than credit card debt and makes it harder for the young to afford marriage or a home. Efforts to reduce it have been blocked.
Our military budget is at record heights, even as the Pentagon remains the greatest source of waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government. Yet our commitment to police the world – to maintain dominance in every region, on land, sea and space – demands even more. We have guided missiles but misguided leaders. The result is endless wars, constant conflict, and ever greater demands to spend ever more.
The sensible, the mad and the missing. Faced with the choice, Americans will no doubt vote for Joe Biden over Donald Trump, the sensible over the mad and maddening. But it is the missing issues that will have the greatest impact on the daily lives of voters. The country desperately needs citizen movements and strong leaders who will expand the debate.