President Joe Biden’s prime-time address to Congress this week represents another step in negotiations over his economic plan. But the rhetorical endgame has already come into focus.
His appeal vaults past details of the sprawling $4 trillion infrastructure and jobs package to the continued viability of the American system itself. Lately Biden has previewed his Wednesday speech from the well of the House by framing the stakes in simple but soaring terms.
“It’s a basic question,” the new President said last month in rolling out the first part of the package outlining his infrastructure goals. “Can democracies still deliver for their people?”
When the fall of the Berlin Wall punctuated America’s Cold War victory over communism three decades ago, that question would have made no sense. The superiority of democratic capitalism appeared self-evident.
But the simultaneous rise of China and debilitating evolution of partisan conflict within the US have suddenly lent relevance to the question – and handed Biden a political tool.
In theory, a call to prove America can respond to economic competition, climate change and inequality of opportunity could appeal to Republicans as well as Democrats in Congress. Polls show individual elements of the plan, as with his earlier Covid relief plan, enjoy substantial support from rank-and-file Republicans as well as Democrats.
But the GOP leaders who roadblocked former President Barack Obama’s priorities whenever possible have already signaled a similar approach to Biden. Not only did Republicans withhold support for his Covid relief bill, many resist acknowledging that he fairly defeated his Republican predecessor Donald Trump last November.
Even after the deadly January 6 insurrection, Republican leaders have not recalibrated their message to attract more voters. In multiple states, they’ve moved instead to change election procedures in hopes of changing who can vote.
As Congress lurches toward a decision on Biden’s agenda, unyielding GOP opposition will invite Biden to rally Democrats alone behind their responsibility to safeguard the American experiment.
“The idea of Republicans obstructing both democratic elections and effective governance by people who have been duly elected will resonate with Democratic voters,” says Geoff Garin, a leading Democratic strategist, “and hopefully with Democratic elected officials as well.”
“Battle for the soul of this nation”
Biden, never an ideological firebrand, defined his 2020 campaign broadly from the beginning. He called it “a battle for the soul of this nation” against Trump’s depredations.
As President, a once-in-a-century pandemic let him frame his first priority in practical terms. Following the partisan overlay Trump applied to the coronavirus response, the Biden White House has hammered away at numerical markers speeding the return of normal life: vaccines acquired, shots administered and relief checks delivered.
Biden’s plain-spoken oratorical style lacks the charisma or poetry that Obama, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton could offer. His first address to a joint session of Congress comes later than those of other recent presidents.
But that delay also provides a 100-day scoreboard to tout.
“‘Here are the numbers, bang bang bang, promises made promises kept,’” said former Obama speechwriter Cody Keenan. “That gives him the space to paint a picture for what we do next.”
The midterm question
Republican lawmakers call his canvas so over-sized as to assure voter backlash. After enacting their top opening initiatives, Obama and Clinton lost Democratic control of the House after two years.
In the GOP view, the prospect that Biden may pursue a Democrats-only approach to the economic plan – using the same special budget procedures that delivered $1.9-trillion in covid-relief spending – proves the point.
Yet Biden’s team maintains that Trump’s presidency and its aftermath created a unique political moment that allows Democrats to create sufficient consensus by themselves.
“America is not going to punish him for doing it that way,” insisted John Anzalone, the president’s pollster. “If Republicans are going to get in the way, Americans are going to side with Biden. As a matter of fact, they will punish the GOP for doing nothing.”
The White House still holds out the possibility that part of the economic plan – the part financing physical infrastructure such as roads and bridges – can attract enough Republicans to surmount a filibuster by the rest. But even that much cooperation remains a longshot.
Polls show much of the Republican base, especially the white evangelical Christians who influence lawmakers most, fears the societal change Democrats reflect as mortal threats. That sentiment fueled challenges to Biden’s victory, and casts doubt on the GOP’s continued willingness to accept the traditional give-and-take of America’s constitutional system.
“The Republicans have entered a gray zone,” said Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky, co-author of the 2018 book How Democracies Die. “As constituted, the Republicans pose a risk to democracy if they are in power.”
The challenge to democracy forms the backdrop for Biden’s argument. His audience extends beyond lawmakers in the House chamber or Americans watching from home.
“It’s an important moment,” said senior White House adviser Anita Dunn. “The international community is judging us on whether, after the last four years, we can function as a viable country.”
Absent Republican cooperation, a handful of Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia will decide the fate of Biden’s agenda. They remain cagey on the particulars and Congressional process.
The president avows his willingness to bargain. But ultimately he aims to hold them by invoking consequences larger than precise corporate tax rates or pre-kindergarten education spending levels.
“From the perspective of voters and of the well-being of the country, we’re dealing with issues on which failure is not an option,” Garin said. “The question is whether any Democratic senator will want to be the author of that failure.”