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Since taking office, President Biden has been steadily (though arguably too slowly) removing officials left over from the Trump administration. With each new firing, Republican lawmakers have issued perfunctory, hypocritical statements condemning Biden’s “divisiveness” and “politicization” of governing institutions, but otherwise they’ve largely let the matter drop. However, following the latest dismissal—of Social Security Administration Commissioner Andrew Saul—Republicans are vowing “not to let [it] go quietly.” Biden and his colleagues should welcome this confrontation with open arms and seek to re-create similar clashes between their agenda and Trumpism wherever possible.
Why? Democrats’ midterm strategy to, as one Biden adviser so succinctly put it, “help the dickens out of” people is a promising one. But if their suite of proposed remedies is to deliver the expected political returns, one thing is essential: People must be broadly aware that the administration is working to help them and that, were the opposing party in power, that wouldn’t be happening.
Conflict draws attention. Democrats should seek it through a combination of bold action and oversight that makes clear the contrast between the Biden and Trump administrations.
There’s no doubt that Biden’s removal of Saul will tangibly help the American people. Saul’s tenure at SSA directly threatened access to benefits and the very future of the agency. Under his leadership, SSA tightened restrictions on disability benefits and illegally pressured SSA judges to deny disability claims. At the start of this year, Saul needlessly delayed the distribution of stimulus checks to millions of Americans as the pandemic raged. And since the moment he took office, Saul has been hammering at the agency’s foundations by waging a war against its workforce, canceling a popular telework pilot program (while himself working remotely), undermining collective bargaining, and violating the terms of the employees’ union contract.
Biden’s decision to fire Saul might quickly have been forgotten had Republicans not thrown a fit. All too often, Democrats have retreated at the first sign of such histrionics, but there’s little credible reason to believe that this clash will do anything but help Biden. The GOP’s case, after all, is exceptionally weak. Saul is not a sympathetic figure. A former women’s apparel executive, he had no qualifications to speak of for this role (unless, that is, you count donating generously to Republicans and advocating cuts to Social Security as qualifications—which, I’d venture, most Americans do not).
The GOP’s objections on process grounds are even more laughable, and ironic. Biden has the power to remove Saul only because of Republicans’ previous advocacy for the president’s removal power. It was their allies who led lawsuits that targeted removal protections for the directors of the Federal Housing Finance Agency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; their judges who decided in those allies’ favor; and their donors who have underwritten decades of advocacy to remove any and all restrictions on presidential power. Now they’re whining because a Democratic president is using powers that they themselves created.
But while Republicans are unlikely to win any new adherents with these arguments, they have ensured that a broader share of the public is aware of Biden’s efforts on their behalf (and of the prior administration’s attacks on the government program they hold most dear). Biden should push them to do this kind of thing again. Repeatedly.
Of course, sparking Republican outcry should not be the only or primary reason that the Biden administration takes a given action. But it need not look very far to find other popular steps that will simultaneously help people, prompt Republican lawmakers’ ire, and strike a sharp contrast with the prior administration.
Consider, for example, another Trump holdover who still needs to be fired: IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig. Firing Rettig—who has helped shield Trump’s tax returns, led the agency to new auditing highs for low-income earners and record lows for the country’s wealthiest, and overseen a pitiful effort to get the new Child Tax Credit to those who don’t regularly file taxes—will be essential if Biden is to fulfill his promise for a fairer tax system. It will also make Republicans shriek, ensuring that Biden’s fight to hold wealthy tax cheats accountable gets top billing.
The same can be said for any number of other proposed actions, whether it’s seizing intellectual property from pharmaceutical companies for the COVID-19 vaccine and other treatments, breaking up monopolies across the breadth of the economy, or holding oil and gas companies accountable for fueling climate change. In each case, Biden should welcome Republicans’ protests knowing that they’re drawing more attention to his popular agenda.
Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, should look to prolong and deepen these clashes through oversight. Hearings with the CEOs of corporations affected by Biden’s actions could make for good TV and fiery clips to be circulated on social media. If history is any guide, less-than-flattering snippets of Republicans jumping to the executives’ defense will also make it into the mix.
At the same time, Democrats should use oversight to continually draw the contrast between Biden and Trump. After all, we still don’t know a great deal about the extent of the damage Trump and his cronies caused. Subpoenas and hearings can help to uncover previously hidden information and to elevate what we already know about how the Trump administration’s actions hurt people, making the contrast with Biden’s agenda that much clearer.
Too often, Democrats shrink from these direct confrontations, preferring instead to rise above the fray and, presumably, earn support through a show of their diligence. But diligence does not attract attention; such efforts are customarily overlooked. As they gear up for the midterms next year, they can’t afford to have their work forgotten. It’s time they lean into the power of a righteous fight.