Thursday, April 29, 2021

Ridin' With Biden, Con't

President Biden made his first joint address to Congress last night, laying out a massively ambitious program that Republicans instantly despised and gave no indication in GOP Sen. Tim Scott's rebuttal that anything has changed since the Trump regime, other than they believe Trump is still in charge.

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 Biden is rarely described as gifted orator, his 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 decadeslong erosion of respect in government and nongovernment 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.”

Maybe less a pendulum swing and more a swift and badly needed correction after the horrible Trump regime, but I'll take it. After my generation being told from birth that "Government itself is evil, and must be fought every step of the way", we finally are coming around to "Government doing good for the people is possible if the right people are in charge" and it's...amazing.

Especially in the 21st century, the argument has gone from "Is government bad?" to "Can government be good?" to "Is government even necessary?"

The answer, in the Biden era, is the Obama promise given form: Yes we can.

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