In an address to a joint session of Congress and the nation, Biden offered up government as both an organizing principle for the nation’s democracy and an engine for economic growth and social well-being. He issued a pointed rejoinder to the fiscal philosophy espoused by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, arguing that “trickle-down economics has never worked,” and offered in its place an eye-popping $4 trillion in new government spending to bolster infrastructure and remake a social safety net that buckled for many Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works and can deliver for our people,” Biden declared.
One hundred days into his presidency, Biden is riding a wave of early momentum after securing passage of a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief fund and surging coronavirus vaccine supplies across the country. But his ability to enact the next phases of his domestic agenda is deeply uncertain given his narrow majorities in Congress, near-universal opposition thus far from Republicans and wariness from some moderate Democrats.
Yet Biden, to the surprise of some lawmakers in both parties, has not responded to those political realities by curtailing or moderating his asks of Congress.
While he made overtures to Republicans in his address Wednesday, particularly for partnership on infrastructure spending, he also made clear that he was willing to press forward without them, confident that a once-in-a-generation influx of government spending will yield results he can sell to the public in next year’s midterm elections and perhaps in the 2024 campaign, if he seeks a second term. Biden’s posture has been cheered by many Democrats who are eager to move past the political constructs erected during the Reagan era, which left the party caught between arguing for more investments for lower- and middle-class Americans and wary of being branded as tax-and-spend liberals.
As he sought reelection in 1996, Democratic President Bill Clinton stated in his own address to Congress that the “era of big government is over,” though he also said Americans should not be “left to fend for themselves.” The next Democratic president, Barack Obama, muscled through his signature health care law and a stimulus plan to pull the economy out of recession, but faced fierce political blowback that cost him his congressional majorities and quickly curtailed many of his other domestic policy ambitions.
But the Democratic Party as a whole has grown more comfortable in recent years with more liberal policies, pushed along in part by a younger, more diverse array of politicians who argue that persistent inequality, particularly for minorities, requires broader overhauls of the nation’s domestic policies. The inequities exposed by the pandemic, with Black and Hispanic Americans disproportionately impacted both by the COVID-19 virus and the economic fallout, hastened those arguments.
And while Biden — a white, 78-year-old career politician with a moderate record — may not have been the first choice of his party’s left flank, his closing arguments of the 2020 campaign evoked the ideals of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s expansive progressive agenda and the notion of what government can accomplish in a crisis.
After Biden’s address, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney — one of the more centrist Republicans the White House has been courting — bristled at the totality of the president’s asks.
“Six trillion and counting,” he said. “He would like Republicans to vote for his plan. But in terms of meeting in the middle, that hasn’t been something the administration has shown.”