President Joe Biden laid out his ambitious plan to remake the social contract between government and citizens during his first address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night.
Appealing to both patriotism and morality, he told Americans they should expect to get more out of their government and that those who are most successful should have to pay more in.
His vision – for more government money to pay for child care, community college, health care, and infrastructure like roads and bridges and the power grid – would add up to trillions in new spending, but he argued we need to invest to prime ourselves for the battle of ideals – democracy vs. autocracy – with China and Russia.
“Autocrats think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies because it takes too long to get consensus,” Biden said, speaking about China’s Xi Jinping. “To win that competition for the future, in my view, we also need to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our families and our children.”
I went line-by-line through the speech and annotated it. Read it here.
The scope of Biden’s plan – built on progressive goals for a more active and generous government – is in line with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, which not only got the country rebuilt during the Great Depression but created Social Security so older Americans would not be in poverty.
It’s no less ambitious than Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, which gave older Americans guaranteed health care.
And it builds on the legacy of Biden’s former boss Barack Obama, who tried to extend health benefits to the rest of the country through the Affordable Care Act.
Biden's First 100 Days
For an appraisal of similarities between Biden and Roosevelt, read this CNN Opinion by David Gergen, who advised four presidents from both parties.
There are many differences between Biden and those other presidents, but there’s one key distinction that could stand in the way of any massive and meaningful permanent legislation, and it’s this: Biden’s trying to build a big time legacy with a small time majority.
Each of those other Democratic presidents had a massive majority in the Senate – 60 or more – that helped them change the safety net with support in both parties.
Social Security: 69 Senate Democrats, 76 total “yes” votes, including 16 Republicans. Roosevelt came to office in 1933 after a landslide win. His Democrats gained another nine seats in the 1934 Midterm elections. There were 69 Democratic senators when Social Security was passed.
Medicare: 68 Senate Democrats, 70 total Senate “yes” votes, including 13 Republicans. Johnson came to office after John F. Kennedy’s assassination at a similar moment of brewing racial upheaval. He beat filibusters of civil rights legislation and almost simultaneously got Medicare passed, in 1965. He did it with a 68-seat Senate majority.
Obama’s Affordable Care Act was nearly defeated when Democrats lost a 60-seat majority after the death of Masschusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, JFK’s younger brother. But that example is more modern and it has everything to do with overcoming the filibuster.
The time before cloture and filibuster took over. Neither Medicare nor Social Security was the subject of an official filibuster in the Senate, even though back then an even smaller minority could have destroyed either bill. The practice was basically nonexistent in the 1930s. There were no “cloture” filings to limit debate in all of 1935. Today nearly everything requires “cloture” to get around the threat of filibuster.
In 1965, civil rights legislation was filibustered, but not Medicare. (There were a grand total of 7 cloture filings in 1965. There have been 37 in the 100 days of Biden’s presidency.)
That doesn’t mean passing Medicare was easy. Princeton history professor Julian Zelizer wrote about the Senate jockeying in The New Yorker back in 2015: “The passage of Medicare and Medicaid, which shattered the barriers that had separated the federal government and the health-care system, was no less contentious than the recent debates about the Affordable Care Act,” he wrote, although back then Republicans were actively part of the debate.
Where is the bipartisanship? Both Medicare and Social Security ultimately passed with large bipartisan majorities, something Biden – and I feel comfortable making this most obvious prediction – is unlikely to get. We know that Republicans will claim he’s not being bipartisan. We know that if he waits for Republican votes, he won’t get anything done.
Changing the country without a big majority. What’s left for Biden is to use is bare majority and exploit Senate rules for budget “reconciliation,” as he did for his Covid relief bill and as Republicans did for their tax cuts bill under Trump.
He’ll need complete Democratic unity to work this way and it’s clear West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the Senate’s most important Democrat, has little appetite to enable new spending.
Landslides lead to legislation. Another key difference between Biden’s efforts now and the social programs of the 1930s and 1960s is in the strength of FDR and LBJ’s election wins.
FDR won the vast majority of states in 1932, except the Northeast, and he bucked the trend of an incumbent losing power by gaining nine Senate seats in 1934. Months later, he was signing Social Security into law.
In 1964, Johnson won the vast majority of the states, except in the South.
Zelizer told me in an email that Medicare was a campaign issue that year between Johnson and Republican Barry Goldwater, who opposed Medicare.
Republicans were terrified of being like him so they started to compromise,” Zelizer said, although he added there are other key differences, including the growing cost of those previous programs.
“But Biden is showing that a lot is still possible if you can keep every Democrat on the same page and are willing to use tools like reconciliation,” he said.
Can Biden win a stronger majority? 2022 is closer than you think, and picking up a workable Senate majority, would help him be less reliant on the whims of Manchin. A filibuster-proof majoirty seems like pipe dream, but anything more than their current 50 would be a step in the right direction for Democrats, who also have to hold a slim House majority.
There’s little room for either party to move. Of the 10 Senate seats most likely to flip, according to CNN’s Simone Pathe, 6 are held by Republicans and four are held by Democrats.
Only two of the at-risk seats – Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania – are in a state won by the opposing party in the presidential election.
The writing on the wall, at least for now, is that the Senate majority in 2023, whoever holds it, will be slim. Again.
That leaves Biden’s hopes pinned to keeping Democrats united and hoping for the miracle of Republicans will work with him, or exploiting loopholes in Senate rules if he wants a Roosevelt-style rewrite of the social safety net.