During the campaign, President Biden told seven network anchors, “there wasn’t a whole lot of time to think about larger initiatives.”
Well, as his speech to Congress underscored, he’s made up for lost time.
Biden’s point at the traditional media luncheon, before he went off the record, was that he was responding to the Covid emergency on the fly. But if that explains the $2-trillion law he passed with only Democratic votes, the next two bills—totaling over $4 trillion—clearly reflect a sweeping liberal agenda and Democratic wish list. And the new president’s job, in a House chamber with a sparse, socially distant crowd, was to sell it. And, in his low-key fashion, he tried.
Biden hit the broad themes early, calling the assault on that building less than four months ago “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.” He said “America’s house was on fire” just 100 days earlier, and urged the country to “go get vaccinated.”
The president’s speech was suffused with empathy as he described the suffering during the pandemic. He vowed to “cut childhood poverty in half.” “End cancer as we know it.”
As in every such speech, the laundry list got longer, toggling between accomplishments and the blizzard of costly programs he wants to pass. The superlatives started to flow: “Largest jobs plan since World War II.” “Clear and present danger to our children’s health.”
Who could be against these noble goals? Clean water. Child care. Elderly home care. Combating climate change. Lower drug prices. But even beyond the usual battle over whose taxes get raised, Biden is asking the Hill to spend the equivalent of one and a half times the entire federal budget in a few short months.
There was also the micro-targeting of such Democratic interest groups as labor. A “blue-collar blueprint.” “Right to unionize.” A $15 minimum wage. Family and medical leave.
What was left unspoken, for all the media comparisons to FDR, is that Biden has razor-thin margins in both houses. So he can’t go big without cutting out the Republicans, burying his vision of bipartisanship.
Biden framed the latest package of goodies, the American Families Plan, as a way of competing with China. But it was here, on education, that one aspect deserves more media attention that it will probably receive, having to do with eligibility.
With a nod to teacher Jill Biden, announcing that he wants universal access to pre-school for 3- and 4-year-olds, the president is not suggesting any income limits. That wasn’t in the speech, but advance details were provided to the morning papers. That means if you’re a millionaire who can easily pay for pre-K, you get it as a freebie anyway.
The same goes for the Biden proposal of free community college, long a Bernie favorite. Maybe that’s a great idea. But if you’re a millionaire, you don’t have to pay a dime for your kid to enjoy two free years of college.
How is it that a country that is drowning in red ink can give these kinds of benefits to the wealthy? I know Biden wants to help the middle class, and we can debate the proper income cutoff, but this seems like an unnecessary giveaway. Even Barack Obama targeted such aid rather than flouting what goes by the boring Washington term of means testing.
Biden was frank in saying he’ll raise taxes on the wealthy (defined as above $400,000), framing his proposed top rate of 39.6 percent as where it stood under George W. Bush. That’s a non-starter with Republicans, but Biden campaigned on it, and it happens to be popular. So is going after highly paid CEOs and 55 big corporations that paid zero taxes last year.
Moving briskly topics from Afghanistan withdrawal to police reform to gun control to immigration, the president gave the impression of punching these tickets so he couldn’t be accused of leaving them out.
Biden gives heartfelt talks, not stirring orations. His voice sometimes descended to a near-whisper. The virus deprived him of the crackling atmosphere that usually surrounds these addresses. It was a plain-spoken speech by a plain-spoken guy, and he got his message across.
Yet he didn’t break new ground and often sounded like he was preaching to the converted. Maybe the public will like various parts, which got Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi to keep springing up in applause. But he didn’t change the conversation.