President Joe Biden recently signed into law the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. The bill sends $1,400 stimulus checks to the bank accounts of millions of Americans and increases vaccine distribution, among other policy priorities. Throughout the legislative process, progressive social media pages attacked President Joe Biden for “giving up” on a $15 minimum wage. This criticism is premised on a fallacy deeply rooted in public discourse: Green Lanternism. Joe Biden is not an all-powerful figure who can bend the legislative branch to his will. These progressive social media pages and pundits should stop acting like he is.
Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan coined the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency. It is “the belief that the president can achieve any political or policy objective if only he tries hard enough or uses the right tactics.” When the president fails at accomplishing a domestic policy priority, it is because he lacks presidential will, or that he is not trying hard enough. The term was inspired by the Green Lantern Corps, a group of characters in DC comics who have power rings that allow them to use green energy to create whatever they want. The only restriction is the willpower of the ring wearer. Prominent progressive social media pages essentially believe President Biden wears a presidential power ring, but he doesn’t have the imagination to use it.
Impact, an Instagram page that has 1.3 million followers, posted that “Joe Biden gave up on passing a $15 minimum age in the near future. Senate officials claimed it was ‘impossible’ to include a $15 minimum wage in their COVID relief bill. Joe Biden happily accepted defeat.”
The Gravel Institute, a non-profit whose mission is to share progressive ideas, said “On his 36th day of his presidency, Joe Biden bombed Syria, gave up on a $15 minimum wage, and didn’t send our survival checks to the millions of people going hungry.” The common feature of these criticisms is that Joe Biden lacked the will to pass a major policy change in increasing the minimum wage. They are only two of many posts that are shared passionately on Instagram and Twitter.
These pages reacted to the Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough who ruled that the $15 minimum wage increase couldn’t be included in the COVID-19 relief package. She said that the wage hike’s budgetary impact violated the Byrd Rule which restricts what can be included in reconciliation legislation. Reconciliation was a procedural tool that the Democrats used to fast-track the COVID bill.
President Biden said that he respected her decision.
Blaming Biden for the failure to include the minimum wage increase ignores separation of powers and basic congressional facts. President Biden cannot force Congress to pass the minimum wage hike or sign an executive order that increases it. He sets a legislative agenda, and his Democratic counterparts in Congress have to do the hard work of legislating. In the 117th Congress, Democrats hold a slim 10 seat Democratic majority in the US House and a 50-50 Senate tie that VP Kamala Harris breaks as Senate President. The Senate Democratic Caucus also has swing state members who hold significant legislative leverage, including Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ). If one Senator deviates from congressional leadership and the White House, the Democrats cannot pass their legislation. President Biden has to rely on Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Schumer to keep their caucuses in line. Biden cannot use some executive branch superpower.
67% of the American public does support raising the minimum to $15 an hour. It’s politically popular, and Democrats could have reaped the benefits as the 2022 midterms approach. Eight Democratic Senators, however, still opposed the minimum wage increase, and five of them represent swing states. A bold progressive agenda is extremely difficult to enact when the Senate’s margins are so tight and vulnerable members are up for re-election in 2022. Democrats have to work with the Congress they have, not the one they want.
I’m very sympathetic to the argument that the Senate has devolved from a deliberative body that the Founders envisioned to an anti-democratic institution that requires reform, such as getting rid of the filibuster. I understand the frustration about seemingly archaic rules like the Byrd Rule. The argument that Biden is to blame for Congress’s legislative shortcomings, however, is disingenuous and wrong.
The American Rescue Plan is one of the largest and most progressive federal aid packages since the New Deal. It was also the result of a coordinated, sustained effort between the White House and Democratic congressional leadership; Biden set the agenda and Democrats in Congress whipped the votes. The $15 minimum wage was a victim of the Senate floor procedure, not a weak president who gives up easily. Green Lanternism, however, will still seep into Twitter threads and Instagram info graphics. When it does, I hope people condemn it, for the sake of civic discourse.