President Joe Biden’s address to a joint session Congress was the most ambitious ideological statement made by any Democratic president in decades—couched in language that made it sound as if he wasn’t making an ideological argument at all.
Make no mistake that he was. He called for trillions in new spending in a robust expansion of government’s role in multiple arenas of American life in ways that would have been impossible to contemplate in Barack Obama’s presidency. He plunged into subjects—racial and class inequities, immigration, gun violence—that were rubbed raw until bleeding in Donald Trump’s.
Usually these issues are framed with a question: Which side are you on? Though rarely described as gifted orator, Biden’s speech was a remarkable performance in part because it didn’t soar and largely didn’t even try to. In plain-spoken language, he depicted a breathtakingly large agenda as plain common sense. Instead of imploring partisans to take sides, he projected bewilderment that any practical-minded person of any persuasion could be opposed.
Under a pose of guilelessness, Biden’s speech was in fact infused with political guile. The agenda he promoted to expand both free pre-school and community college, to subsidize the shift to a low-carbon economy, to fund a massive way of new public works construction by taxing the very wealthy, represented years of pent-up demand by progressives. But much of the money would be spent in ways designed to break up the Trump coalition, which was powered heavily by middle- and lower-middle class whites who do not have college degrees with contempt for many parts of the progressive agenda.
Referring to his infrastructure proposal, Biden argued: “Nearly 90 percent of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan do not require a college degree. Seventy-five percent don’t require an associate’s degree. The American Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America.”
The bet is that material gains—i.e., a recovery that produces lots of working class jobs, and allows families to more easily educate their children—can trump the cultural grievances that sent many of these people into the conservative movement over the past two generations, beginning with George Wallace’s hardhat supporters and later becoming a flood of “Reagan Democrats.”
In fact there was a nod—was it subconscious, or were Biden and his speechwriters thinking of it explicitly?—to one of Reagan’s great arguments, made in 1981 when a 38-year-old Biden had already been in the Senate for eight years. At his first inaugural address, Reagan declared, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”
Speaking Wednesday to Congress, in which social distancing made the audience on the House floor a small fraction of its usual size for a presidential address, Biden explicitly rejected the conservative notion of government as an outside or hostile force, as distinct from average Americans. “Our Constitution opens with the words, ‘We the People.’ It’s time we remembered that ‘We the People’ are the government,” Biden implored. “You and I. Not some force in a distant capital. Not some powerful force we have no control over. It’s us. It’s ‘We the People.’”
The passage was a notable reminder of the arc of Biden’s career. For most of his half-century in government, Biden has been operating in a climate in which Democrats of his generally centrist ilk had to practice defensive politics. They knew that the union movement that had been the foundation of the old Democratic coalition was steadily weakening. They knew that decades-long erosion of respect in government and non-government institutions had helped fuel a contempt-driven conservative movement. To support Democrats, many people needed constant reassurance that candidates weren’t brazenly or irresponsibly liberal.
The speech was another marker suggesting that the ideological pendulum may have finally swung again at the closing end of Biden’s half-century in Washington.
For his part, Biden believes people are ready to support aggressively activist government if the debate is taken out of the realm of symbolism and political abstraction and into the realm of concrete realities of people’s lives. He celebrated the success in soaring far past his goal of 100 million vaccination shots in the first 100 days, and called vaccine distribution in his term, “one of the greatest logistical achievements our country has ever seen.”
On building a green economy, Biden said: “For too long, we have failed to use the most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis. Jobs. Jobs. For me, when I think about climate change, I think jobs.”
Subtle stuff. Without the benefit of political journalists helping translate, people might have missed Biden’s point that the climate debate must be removed from arcane discussions of science, and allegations that climate activists don’t care about people in heartland manufacturing states, and instead be portrayed as an economy-booster.
If the pendulum really has made a historic swing—from a Reagan vision of America needing simply to have its creative powers unleashed from government, to a Biden vision of America being able to compete in the world only if the talents of ordinary people are harnessed to creative government action—this is surely due to a convergence of factors. Over the long-term, it has become a vastly more diverse nation than when Biden entered public service. More immediately, the coronavirus pandemic has created a moment of emergency when government typically grows. Conservatives have lost much of their moral authority to object by acquiescence to Trump, who stood for neither personal responsibility or fiscal responsibility.
The very boldness of Biden’s proposals is going to start a new generation of arguments about government’s role. Even so, the speech was a vivid sign of the times, as Biden spoke of a New Deal-style expansion of government as if it was No Big Deal, just a sensible and eminently affordable response to the everyday concerns of this generation of Americans.
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