You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The People Dream of a President Who Will Take on Corporations

Broad, bipartisan swathes of the American people want a leader who will fight on their team against the entrenched power of corporate interests.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There’s been no shortage of hand-wringing in recent weeks about President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party, and their electoral prospects. The president faces increasing concerns about the economy, an ongoing pandemic, and dwindling time to tackle the climate crisis—all amid intransigence from his own party’s centrists and a damaging loss in the Virginia gubernatorial race. Many well-compensated pundits and political consultants have begun either preemptively writing obituaries for the party or encouraging Biden simply to abandon his agenda and pivot, in some undefined way, to the center-rightwhere solutions are forever said to be at hand but never seem to emerge.

Obviously, Biden faces some potent headwinds. But it may shock these pundits and consultants to learn that solving big problems while under pressure is the nutshell description of the president of the United States’ job—and that the president has methods of doing so besides giving televised speeches or begging Congress to act. Instead, through the existing powers of the executive branch, Biden can enact good policy, practice good politics, and make life tangibly better for people across the country. The prospects for the Biden administration still teem with possibilities—and the American people have their own ideas about what direction he should head.

We must recognize the common root cause of many of the problems we are currently enduring: corporate greed. For instance, the supply chain shortages we face are a consequence of threadbare logistics systems designed to cut as many corners as possible, all for the purpose of maximizing shareholders’ profits. Additionally, the only way finally to stop Covid-19 is to get the whole world vaccinated as fast as possible, and the only way to do that is to open the intellectual property restrictions furiously guarded by Big Pharma manufacturers. Furthermore, the oil firms behind our environmental crisis shamelessly lied to the public about climate change for decades, all while violating anti-pollution and tribal sovereignty laws with impunity. In all of these cases, firms have not just defied the public interest—they’ve often broken the law.

Cracking down on abuses like these is the only way actually to address many of the problems Americans face today. Moreover, taking highly public action against these bad corporate actors makes for a very persuasive political argument that Democrats are fighting for ordinary, working people: I am on your team, and I will punish the people who cheated you. A Biden administration that pursues crooked CEOs and brings down abusive corporate titans will find a willing audience in the American public.

The proof is in the polling. Data for Progress recently surveyed attitudes of likely voters toward corporations that break the law for profit and whether they’d support a president who prioritizes corporate accountability. The results, provided to The New Republic, were astonishing. Voters agree with the statement “Wealthy people and corporations are regularly not punished for breaking the law” by a margin of +67 percentage points. Additionally, with a +80-point margin, likely voters agreed with the statement “When wealthy people and corporations are not punished for breaking laws, people lose trust in the government and the rule of law.” Increasing funding for federal investigations into corporate lawbreaking was backed by a +49-point margin of support.

These extraordinary levels of support reflect deeply felt grievances among the electorate. What’s even more notable is that this support crosses partisan lines: 70 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Democrats surveyed believe the Biden administration should do more to hold lawbreaking corporations accountable. Clearly, maintaining the status quo is not a winning position.

Importantly, cracking down on our golden age of white-collar crime does not require a single vote from Congress. All it takes is Biden fully utilizing the massive powers of the executive branch already at his disposal. The Revolving Door Project and Data for Progress are releasing a set of “scorecards” for Biden’s executive branch across a range of policy areas in the coming months, both highlighting the existing successes of the Biden administration and providing a pathway for the administration to rein in further abuse.

The modern presidency was originally designed to wage and win these fights. Much of the executive branch was created after the first Gilded Age, in hopes of preventing its widespread abuses from ever happening again. We made a Federal Trade Commission to prevent consumer abuses and bust monopolies. We made an Environmental Protection Agency to protect our biosphere and ensure tribal sovereignty, and bring the hammer down on any firm that would violate either. We made a whole alphabet soup of financial regulators to rein in Wall Street.

Over the decades, a combination of capture, ideology, funding cuts, and wrongfully decided court cases hollowed out these and other agencies, allowing corporate America to run rampant once again. Reversing this trend is not only necessary policy, it can be excellent politics. With a properly run executive branch, Biden can crack down on corporate abuses and rightly take public credit, to the likely thrill of voters in a tough election year.

We’re starting our scorecard series with an issue dear to the president’s heart and the party’s electoral prospects: American labor. While union leaders have hailed Biden as the most pro-labor president of their lifetimes, there is far more Biden and the executive branch could be doing to protect workers. Directing his Department of Labor to turn its Red Scare–era powers to surveil unions back on the consultants and union-busting firms that trample them would be one place to start.

Biden understands the potency of this type of American populism. When he ran for president, he notably advanced rhetoric of fighting for Scranton, not Park Avenue. He saw that the surest approach to picking up swing voters and securing turnout was not coddling the powerful but sharpening his tongue against them and signaling that his executive branch would fight for the little guy. It is time for Biden to walk that walk. The potential consequences of failure are indeed dire, but with the right messaging and the right approach, Biden can make life better for the people—and win elections to boot.