Candidate Joe Biden campaigned as the centrist exemplar of a return to pre-Trump normal, but President Joe Biden has moved swiftly to enlarge the scope of his ambitions far beyond the status quo ante. On Wednesday night, the ninety-ninth of his Presidency, Biden offered a striking vision of a country renewed by an activist government. Harkening back to the early twentieth-century liberalism of his party forebears, Biden envisioned a new age of “once in a generation” federal investments in everything from child care to electric cars, while promising benefits as varied as free community college and an end to cancer. To anyone who remembered last year’s Democratic primaries, the President’s first address to a joint session of Congress sounded as if Elizabeth Warren, and not Biden, had won.
For just over an hour, Biden dazzled with the prospect of an American utopia—a stark contrast to the dystopian reality of our plague year just past. He spoke of “the largest jobs plan since World War II,” universal preschool, of “meeting the climate crisis,” and of the “chance to root out systemic racism that plagues America”; he called for gun control and immigration reform and cutting the prices on prescription drugs. He pushed for raising the minimum wage and equal pay for women and family and medical leave. Beyond a populist promise of higher taxes on wealthy corporations and people making more than four hundred thousand dollars a year, Biden did not mention the multi-trillion-dollar price tag that would come with his proposals. Nor did he talk about the remote chance of passage that so much of this agenda has on Capitol Hill, where, despite the general popularity of many of his proposals, gridlock prevails and the political reality is a fifty-fifty Senate. For the past four years, Donald Trump used his speeches to sell alternate realities to his supporters. Here, at last, was an alternate reality that Democrats could get behind.
In his response, Tim Scott, the Republican senator from South Carolina, called Biden’s address nothing more than a “liberal wish list,” a blunt summation about which it was hard to disagree. In many ways, there was a notable convergence in how Democrats and Republicans saw Biden’s speech: as a breathtakingly ambitious set of proposals to use government as an instrument of social and economic transformation—an unabashed progressive platform unseen from a President in my lifetime. Republicans hated it; Democrats, for the most part, loved it. The Drudge Report christened him “Biden Hood,” in honor of a program it summed up as “tax the rich, give to the poor.” “We cannot stop until it’s done,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the leader of the Democratic Party’s activist left wing in the Houses, enthused in a tweet. “Keep going.” Few were entirely sure how Biden, who has long been seen as an avatar of genial Beltway centrism, had got to this place.
Part of the answer, of course, is the mess that Biden inherited, an interlocking set of crises unleashed or worsened during Trump’s disastrous Presidency, from the coronavirus pandemic and attendant economic damage, to the attack by Trump and his supporters on the legitimacy of the election, which Biden called “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.” Another part of the answer is undoubtedly that Biden himself, after spending the better part of five decades in Washington, is a believer in the power and possibility of government to shape America for the better. Politically, Biden is best known as Uncle Joe, a humble son of Scranton who rode the Amtrak home to Delaware at night—but that overlooks perhaps a more relevant truth about the forty-sixth President, which is that he is fundamentally a creature of Washington: a senator for thirty-six years, and Vice-President and thus president of the Senate for eight years after that. “It’s good to be back,” he said, smiling broadly, as he opened his address on Wednesday night, in the building he knows so well. Congress is where he began his national political career, and now he has staked his Presidency on getting things done there, too.
Joe Biden is the sixth President whose tenure I have covered. All of them, until now, operated in the shadow of Ronald Reagan. Three of these Presidents—the two George Bushes and Trump—were Republicans, and each resorted, at various times, to Reagan’s formula when speaking about the role of the federal government: as the problem, and most definitely not the solution, to what ailed the country. Two were Democrats—Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—and while both often gave stirring perorations about the achievements of Democratic Presidents such as F.D.R. and L.B.J., they, too, were shadowed by Reagan’s message when it came to outright embrace of big government, fearing to do so, politically, and often settling instead for incremental and more achievable change. Even the Obama health-care program that would ultimately bear his name represented a split-the-difference compromise between liberals, who wanted a single-payer national health-care system, and more cautious Democrats, who feared that was never going to be politically achievable without some interim steps in that direction.
Biden may yet close out his Presidency with a record that has more in common with Obama’s or Clinton’s than with Roosevelt’s, but his early decisions suggest that he is starting out by making a fundamentally different set of choices. The result was the most avowedly liberal call to action I have ever heard a President make from that congressional podium. Unlike the longtime socialist Bernie Sanders, whom he beat in the Democratic primaries, Biden does not call himself a revolutionary. Unlike the self-styled populist Donald Trump, whom he beat in the general election, Biden does not call himself a disrupter. Were Congress to enact his proposals, Biden would end up as both.
Transformation, however, requires the passage of legislation, not just words. Washington is still Washington, as Biden knows better than anyone, and if you don’t have the votes you don’t have the votes. Key Democrats as well as Republicans are skeptical of his costlier plans, and, so far, no G.O.P. votes have materialized for any of his major initiatives. At a hundred days, the politics are less transformed than Biden’s rhetoric might suggest: in addition to the stubborn facts of a tied Senate and a House where the Democratic majority hangs on a handful of votes, the public remains as polarized and partisan toward this President as it did toward the last one. Biden’s approval ratings, so far, are a straight-line inverse of those for Trump: about fifty-three per cent support Biden, which is just a percentage point or two higher than his share of the popular vote, last November. Biden’s policies, however, are more popular: the $1.9 trillion COVID-relief bill that was passed in the early days of his Administration has more than sixty-per-cent support, as does his over-all effort to fight the pandemic. Raising taxes on large corporations, as Biden proposes, is overwhelmingly popular, as are other ideas he offered in his address—making for a kind of poll-tested, policy-wonk populism that stands in contrast to the pitchforks-and-rage variant that Trump relentlessly peddled. Republican members of Congress may not like it, but Biden claims that bipartisan support from the public ought to count as bipartisanship, too.
It’s early days yet, but this is where Biden’s true genius as a politician may lie: he has turned his likability into a moderating asset, suggesting that an ideological agenda when offered by a relatively non-ideological salesman does not sound all that threatening. Which, come to think of it, is pretty Reaganesque. Much like the Democrats during Reagan’s Presidency, Republicans today are struggling with how to attack a President who seems like such a nice guy. Just about everything else about American politics has changed in the four decades since then, however, including the brute realities of Congress. Understanding that, Biden appealed to his former colleagues not with transformational rhetoric but with the pragmatism of the Senate committee chairman that he was for so many years. He said, “It’s within our power to do it,” and “We can do it,” and “Let’s get it done.”
In reality, he probably will not get it done, at least not all of it, but is there anything all that wrong with another hour or so of political fantasy in Washington? At least, this time, it was not the Trumpian variant of grievance and division. Biden made no mention of culture wars or admiring references to brutal dictators; he did not gaslight the nation about “criminal illegal aliens” or interrupt his speech to give one of the country’s highest honors to a man famous for disparaging “feminazis.” On the eve of his hundredth day in office, Joe Biden never publicly uttered the name Donald Trump, but being the un-Trump means Biden has already accomplished the first and most important promise of his Presidency.