Joe Biden lived, then internalized, the lessons of the Obama era, perhaps none more important than a revealing phrase uttered by that former president’s first chief of staff: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” This much was reflected in Biden’s first address before a joint session of Congress.
“Tonight, I come to talk about crisis and opportunity,” President Biden said Wednesday night. “About rebuilding a nation, revitalizing our democracy and winning the future for America.”
He told some 200 members of the Senate and House, still masked and spread out because of the coronavirus pandemic, that the country is approaching the beginning of the end of that nightmare. “America is rising anew,” he declared. And to make the most of this resurgence, he urged them to pass two proposals with a combined $4 trillion price tag: his American Jobs Plan and his American Families Plan.
The impulse for grand lawmaking during a crisis is nothing new. After the Kennedy assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson pushed hard on civil rights legislation and declared “war on poverty.” For Ronald Reagan, the inflation and economic stagnation that helped engender a national malaise was the impetus for deep tax cuts. Barack Obama used the Great Recession to grease the skids and “fundamentally transform America.” Biden knows all this. Moreover, he has deliberately invoked Franklin Roosevelt, the granddaddy of activist crisis-era modern presidents and the man in the White House when he was born. America’s new president now has unveiled his own plans for sweeping change, even if his party holds power by the narrowest of margins.
Biden’s argument for his ambition was simple: Trust him with more because he has already done so much. He signed into law the American Rescue Plan, which gave a metaphorical shot in the arm to the economy, including getting literal shots, over 200 million coronavirus vaccinations, into the arms of Americans.
“Our progress these past 100 days against one of the worst pandemics in history has been one of the greatest logistical achievements this country has ever seen,” Biden said before taking ample time to bask in that accomplishment. Then the president emphasized that, rather than let up, we must double down: “America is moving forward, but we can't stop now.”
In what has become a theme of his presidency, Biden sold the need for his agenda as part of a larger struggle, one between autocracy and democracy. China was mentioned four different times, and the geopolitical question was over who will “win the 21st century.”
“We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works, and we can deliver for our people,” he said. Winning, in his estimation, required spending big on infrastructure and health care and green energy and a host of other things that Biden detailed.
What the president glossed over was how, exactly, Democrats would get those things to his desk. He did not say anything about ending the filibuster, which Senate Republicans are prepared to use to kill legislation they think goes too far, or anything about budget reconciliation, the parliamentary procedure his party has already used to move legislation by a simple majority. Instead, Biden went populist:
“When you hear someone say that they don’t want to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1% and on corporate America, ask them, ‘Whose taxes are you going to raise instead, and whose are you going to cut?’”
He has already promised not to raise taxes on any family making less than $400,000 a year. The only option left, his White House insists, is hiking taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
Forcing that question, then, is central to birthing the kind of bigger government that Biden wants. But he still took care not to embrace the “democratic socialism” of his old rival. “Sometimes I have arguments with my friends in the Democratic Party,” he said in an obvious reference to Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I think you should be able to become a billionaire and a millionaire, but pay your fair share.”
At the same time, the president made it clear that Reagan’s famous formulation about government not being the solution -- but the problem -- in the present crisis is very nearly the opposite of his own view this time around. “My fellow Americans,” Biden declared, “trickle-down economics has never worked, and it’s time to grow the economy from the bottom and the middle out.” This came even as he plugged an industrial policy that would subsidize companies, especially those in the green economy, which he promised would “create millions of jobs and generate historic economic growth.”
The congressional crowd, even at limited capacity because of COVID-19, interrupted with intermittent applause throughout the night. Otherwise, the speech was relatively tame, with the president’s dulcet tone lulling at least one Republican senator to sleep. Clocking in at over an hour, the speech was longer than any other modern president’s first addresses to Congress. Biden borrowed from Obama (via Martin Luther King) when he said that the country had an opportunity with police reform “to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice, real justice.” He cribbed from Bill Clinton by saying he often believes “our greatest strength is the power of our example, not just the example of our power.”
What Biden did not inherit from either of his Democratic predecessors was caution. The current thinking inside the White House apparently is that Obama could have asked Congress for more money than he did -- and then invested too little time explaining to the American people the need for that government spending.
The former vice president seems intent on making the most of his party’s control of Congress and the White House. There were far fewer references to bipartisanship than usual for Biden in this speech, which Sen. Tim Scott seized on in his official rebuttal. “They won't even build bridges to build bridges,” the South Carolina Republican said of Democrats’ insistence on passing a mammoth infrastructure package by party-line vote if need be.
Biden looked past the need for the other side of the aisle to come along and emphasized instead a vision of a nation emerging from a pandemic bolstered by expansive new spending. It was, he said in concluding his remarks, the patriotic thing to do.
“Folks, as I told every world leader I ever met with over the years, it's never ever, ever been a good bet to bet against America,” the president said. “And it still isn't.”