President Joe Biden’s “radical” idea is that government is not the problem in America but the multi-trillion-dollar solution that can end the pandemic, equalize the economy and make life better for millions of working people.
As he marks his first 100 days in office on Wednesday night with an address to a joint session of Congress, Biden will seize what may be a once-in-a-generation chance amid a deep crisis to change the trajectory of the country.
The President is no firebrand ideologue but he’s aiming at more than conquering Covid-19 and the massive jobs crisis it sparked. He is bringing activism and ambition to bear to tackle inequality in an economy that is working poorly for millions of citizens. And according to a CNN poll released Wednesday, a majority of Americans approve of the way Biden is handling the job and say he has had the right priorities.
“I’m not trying to punish anybody. But damn it, maybe it’s because I come from a middle-class neighborhood, I’m sick and tired of ordinary people being fleeced,” he said at the White House last week.
Biden’s quiet radicalism is expressed through a huge pandemic rescue bill, a larger proposal that redefines the concept of infrastructure, and a massive health and child care blueprint. It’s an agenda that argues government can still solve national problems, 40 years after an era-defining Republican president spelled out the opposite conclusion.
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In his inaugural address in January 1981, Ronald Reagan declared “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” The 40th President’s armory of income and capital gains tax cuts for the rich, a shrinking of the state and shredding of regulations was in itself a reaction to earlier societal shifts by Democratic presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Reagan’s philosophy powered years of unfettered capitalism that helped widen economic inequalities, which two subsequent Democratic presidents struggled to redress.
Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University, says Biden is not consumed by ideology but sees an opening to expand his governing coalition in a way that ex-President Donald Trump refused to do.
“President Biden has tried to speak over the heads of the Washington elite, which is deeply partisan, and say, ‘Look – I think I understand you better than Washington (does) and I think you’re more interested in results than in being ideologically pure,’ ” Naftali said.
“The federal government has some advantages; it’s got comparative advantages in dealing with crises. He is using them to reestablish a healthier relationship between the American people and their federal government.”
Biden is hardly going to extremes. But it’s still Reaganomics in reverse: He’s planning to pay for his plans with a modest rise in the corporate tax rate to 28% from 21% and with higher taxes on capital gains and the highest earners.
Republicans think they can brand Biden as a radical and spark a backlash
Republicans, however, see a radical, and not in a good sense. They are seizing on the cost and size of the President’s ambition, portraying him as an extreme liberal, hoping to seed a backlash that will tip them Congress in the midterm elections. If they can solidify the idea that Biden has overreached and campaigned as a moderate but governed as a radical they could prosper, since voters often use midterm elections to modify a course set in the previous White House race.
“It is clear that Democrats intend to pursue a radical agenda full of left-wing priorities with the full support of President Biden,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said in February.
Last week, the Republican attorney general of West Virginia, Patrick Morrisey, used the “r” word again in threatening to sue Biden if he uses executive power to meet US global emissions commitments because he can’t get the plan through Congress.
“President Biden’s promise that America wants to take radical, transformational and too rapid reductions in carbon and carbon emissions by the end of the decade is a colossal domestic and foreign policy blunder of epic proportions,” Morrisey said.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate Republican, clarified the strategy on Tuesday when he admitted that Biden was relatable but predicted the President’s approach would backfire.
“This is a very, very liberal, expansive approach to government,” Thune told CNN’s Manu Raju. “I think at some point parts of that may be popular, but when they start paying for it, I think it’s going to be unpopular real fast.”
Republicans have struggled since the presidential campaign to portray Biden, a classic Washington Democratic centrist for 50 years, as some kind of raging socialist who wants to bring down US society.
As a White, elderly man, Biden is a difficult target for Trump-loving conservatives, who like to portray racially diverse Democrats as a threat to what they see as Anglo-Saxon cultural traditions.
And the radicalization in America politics currently is not in the Oval Office but in a Republican base awash in conspiracy theories, which believes Trump’s lies of election fraud and has all but given up on US democracy.
Progressives endorse Biden’s first 100 days
The breadth of Biden’s ambition has been disguised by the moderation of his character. He appears to feel no need to dominate the nation’s psyche – a sharp departure from the antics of Trump, who built a presidency in the image of his volcanic temperament.
While Biden’s detailed plan to tilt the economy back in the direction of less well-off Americans has struck many in Washington as a surprise, it perhaps should not have: It was a constant theme in his campaign. He has scripted an entire political career with fables of his own blue-collar origins as an effort to lift up working- and middle-class Americans.
But when the No. 3 House Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, and Democratic progressive champion Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York both agree Biden is more progressive than anticipated, something is clearly going on. The President ran to the right of Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in the Democratic primaries, but both have warmly praised the reach of his policies.
At times, the President has shown boldness that plays into the idea that he is indeed quite radical. He spoke out in favor of conviction for Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd hours before the jury returned – earning criticism from judicial purists and conservatives but voicing the emotions of millions of Black Americans who helped him win the presidency. Biden also plans to end US involvement in the war in Afghanistan by September 11. Both Trump and President Barack Obama vowed to do the same but balked in the end.
But Biden has also taken care to guard against being seen as more extreme than the centrist bloc of voters he courted last year.
He effectively stalled on demands by liberals to expand the size of the Supreme Court by punting to a nonbinding presidential commission. And he has made no secret of his distaste for dismantling the 60-vote Senate filibuster, although it’s hard to see how he can pass his most audacious plans without doing so.
Where Biden differs from FDR
The size of Biden’s bills, however, is startling.
The Covid rescue plan cost $1.9 trillion. His infrastructure plan – which provides billions for items such as home health care, as well as creaking roads and bridges – comes in at about $2.2 trillion. And an American Family Plan, which he will highlight in his address on Wednesday evening, is valued at $1.8 trillion.
For one issue, child care, Biden has already pledged billions of dollars in his infrastructure plan and the Covid relief package. He is expected to include new child care funding, universal pre-K, expanded tax credits, and paid family and medical leave in the family plan. He is seeking $400 billion for home care of elderly and infirm Americans, funding that would not normally be expected to be included in an infrastructure bill.
The President has prepared the ground for such largesse by presenting himself as a fixer who is using government to return the country to a semblance of normal life.
Now he’s implicitly arguing that it is time to turn the same methodology to fix other problems, siding with FDR – who Reagan admired as a young man but ended up repudiating with his sharp turn to the right.
This is where Biden is often compared to Roosevelt, who took office at a time of deep crisis and then went on to remodel the US economy and social safety net. Biden, however, doesn’t have FDR’s massive majorities in Congress.
“The message is one of very brisk activism on the part of the President to address the crisis at hand, which of course is what Roosevelt did as well,” said Ellen Fitzpatrick, a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire.
“I think the level of activism on Biden’s part is very, very notable. His ambition is great. His success may be more doubtful. But I think this shift in tone is itself important.”