This Thursday, 10 of the candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination will descend upon Houston for the third Democratic debate. The festivities in Texas will mark the first time that frontrunner Joe Biden, the former vice president, will share the stage with all of his biggest rivals at once, as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), and Bernie Sanders (Vt.) will all be present alongside him. For Biden, the biggest challenge remains retaining his leader status while articulating a vision for his campaign beyond, “I’m the one who could beat President Trump.”
To that end, Biden’s taken a more moderate approach, and his biggest policy ideas have mostly supported the work he did in the Obama administration. That includes his steadfast loyalty to the Affordable Care Act, even as much of his party has moved leftward toward a Medicare-for-All approach to health care. Rather than embrace Sanders’ signature policy and dismantle the private insurance market, Biden has proposed expanding Obamacare, seeking to retain the bill’s popular stipulations like protections for patients with pre-existing conditions while adding new provisions like a government-run health care option for all Americans, tax credits to help buy cheaper insurance, and the tethering of prescription drug prices to averages abroad in order to keep costs down.
Biden has indicated that his approach is born from a sense of practicality — that America “can’t afford the years it will take in order to write and maybe pass Medicare for All,” as a spokesperson for his campaign told Politico. His reticence to satisfy ideologues has defined much of his candidacy in contrast to his Democratic rivals. Here’s what’s on deck if Joe Biden wins the presidency, aside from the retention and expansion of Obamacare.
1. Rural rejuvenation and spending for farmers
Biden has repeatedly sold himself as the only Democratic candidate who can defeat Trump in a general election. As such, he’s positioned himself as a champion of the middle-class, a reasonable politician, and a man who can bring in disillusioned voters much like the ones who opted for Trump in 2016.
To do so, he’s released a plan for rejuvenating rural America through targeted health care funding, expanded broadband access, and more farm-friendly trade policy — “priorities that are reminiscent of key pieces of the Obama administration’s rural and agricultural agenda,” Politico notes. The idea builds off of the Affordable Care Act, proposing to inject more funding into local infrastructure like community health centers and hospitals and attract more doctors via better-funded residencies. (He tends to couple this plan with the message that Medicare-for-All would render rural hospitals bankrupt, telling an Iowa crowd over the summer that “Medicare reimbursement rates are just too low for these hospitals to keep the doors open.”)
His plan to remake U.S. trade policy hinges upon a promise to “stand up to China,” though while Biden has called the president’s tariff war “pointless,” he has stopped short of saying he would reverse Trump’s duties on imports. What his rural America plan does explicitly call for, however, is doubling the loan amount available to beginning farmers to $100,000 in order to ease the process of starting a new farm, investing in agricultural research to develop cutting edge seed technology, and pledging to make American agriculture the first worldwide to reach net-zero emissions. He additionally promises to put $400 billion toward clean energy research and $20 billion toward rural broadband infrastructure, which he says “has the potential to create more than a quarter-million new jobs.”
2. Passing uncompromising gun control proposals
While Biden often talks about his wish to reach across the aisle — and his belief that Republicans will have an “epiphany” after Trump leaves the White House — he’s evinced an unwillingness to bend when it comes to certain gun control measures. On expanding universal background checks, he told reporters in Iowa that “I think this is no compromise,” per The New York Times. He’s proposed widening the Brady Law, which mandated a five-day waiting period and background checks on all gun purchases from licensed dealers, to close the so-called gun show loophole by requiring a background check on every single purchase of a firearm.
Furthermore, Biden wrote in a separate op-ed for the Times that failing to pass other popular measures, like a renewed ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines (those that hold more than 10 rounds at a time), would be a “moral” failure in addition to a political one. Biden has proposed a national buyback program to go along with the ban, as it would be illegal to sell or own assault weapons under a Biden administration. When asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper what he’d say to gun owners worried that a President Biden would “come for” their guns, Biden responded: “Bingo! You’re right, if you have an assault weapon.”
3. $1.7 trillion in climate spending
The former vice president’s climate plan is a bit less ambitious than some of his more progressive rivals’, calling for the U.S. to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. (Other presidential hopefuls like Warren have set 2030 as the deadline, while New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker outlined a vision for a carbon-neutral economy by 2045.) His stance does however align him broadly with “the central principles, if not all the thorny particulars, of the Green New Deal,” per Inside Climate News.
Biden plans to use the money to fund a government-run clean energy spending program, including putting $400 billion toward research on sustainable energy and agriculture. He’s also calling for “special attention paid to R&D on nuclear power and carbon sequestration,” Mother Jones notes, and a substantial portion of his plan is devoted to getting other countries to address their own carbon emissions — a necessary endeavor to truly meaningfully change our climate trajectory, as the U.S. only accounts for a portion of global emissions. Biden has argued the plan would be financed by eliminating tax cuts passed by the Trump administration as well as fossil fuel subsidies, and he also predicts his plan could generate more than $3 trillion in private investment.
While McClatchy notes that Biden’s plan goes further than Hillary Clinton’s did in 2016, erstwhile candidate Jay Inslee, the Washington governor, called out Biden directly at the second Democratic debate for his moderate measures. “Your plan is just too late,” said Inslee, who built his campaign on the climate crisis. “Your argument is not with me, it’s with science.”
4. Expanding "legal" immigration — so long as migrants “get in line”
Back in June, Biden laid out his immigration priorities with an article in the Miami Herald. Though he affirmed his support for “improving screening procedures” at the border in the piece, he’s described instituting legal status for DREAMers as priority No. 1, and said that No. 2 would be sending a bill to Congress that seeks to create a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already in the U.S.
One major way Biden breaks with some of his peers is his belief that illegal border crossings should not be decriminalized — that is, that they should continue to be dealt with as a criminal penalty rather than as a civil penalty. (Both are still illegal.) Decriminalization “will be an invitation” for unlawful border crossing attempts, Biden said at a candidate forum in Las Vegas last month; at the Democratic debate in July, he stated plainly that “if you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back.” Other candidates, like Booker and Biden’s former Obama-era colleague Julián Castro, have advocated for decriminalizing border crossings as a way to prevent the indefinite, unsafe detentions that have occurred under the Trump administration, but Biden has likened decriminalization to having an open-border policy.
He does, however, advocate expanding legal immigration to the U.S. — provided prospective migrants “get in line,” meaning that they go through the proper channels to gain lawful admission. During a campaign stop in Iowa, he said that America “could afford to take, in a heartbeat, another 2 million [immigrants],” the Washington Examiner reported, and he has said he would increase the number of immigrants the U.S. can accept. He’s also spoken of the need to “flood the zone” for faster processing of asylum requests.
The “get in line” rhetoric soured some Latino leaders on Biden’s immigration plan, Politico reported, as they see the phrasing as a way to “obscure that there really is no practical ‘line’ for many hopeful migrants … to stand in, if they don’t have an employer or family member sponsoring their immigration.” Additionally, his support of immigration laws that prioritize people with advanced degrees or skills has been alienating to some activists.
5. (Hesitant) decriminalization of marijuana
Biden’s record on criminal justice has been subject to scrutiny during this campaign, given his role in the passage of the 1994 crime bill. While he’s sought to atone for some of the repercussions of that legislation — which contributed to an increase in incarceration rates and had a disproportionate effect on minority communities — one area in which he’s stopped sort of his presidential competition is the legalization of marijuana.
Biden has proposed expunging marijuana-related convictions from criminal records, and he supports decriminalization of the drug, but he has not backed federal legalization. He would leave that decision up to the states.
Instead, he’s suggested classifying cannabis as a Schedule II drug, down from its current status as Schedule I (defined by the Drug Enforcement Administration as substances with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”). The move might make it more amenable to state-legal sales, Vice explains, “but here’s the catch: Drugs listed under Schedule II … are available legally, but only under strict Food and Drug Administration controls. That is, only with a doctor’s prescription, only after a lengthy FDA-overseen approval process … and only for limited applications.”
That’s a far cry from legal recreational weed, and a more stringent policy than the likes of Warren, Sanders, and Harris — Biden’s top competition.