Here in New Hampshire, the real governing is done at the town level by Boards of Selectmen, a council of elected officials who ride herd over the rawest, purest form of democracy practiced in the country. Majority vote rules, proposals are raised at “town meeting” and subsequently voted on by whoever raises their hand. Sometimes the room is packed, other times most seats go empty, but decisions are always made by the ones who show up.
Last night, for a brief moment, President Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress looked like one of those New Hampshire town meetings. Here stands Biden, asking the Board for funds to purchase a new city plow so the streets can get cleared faster after a storm. Better for business and safer for families, is his argument, and it is sound. Oscar Wilde would recognize the scene in an eyeblink.
The mirage, alas, was punctured by the image of Ted Cruz’s eyes rolling up in his head like a guy who’d spent too much time in Cancun. Yes, this was Congress in all of its squalid glory, the man at the podium was the president, but the difference between now and last year is the difference between a friendly shoulder rub and being devoured by a hammerhead shark.
“Madam Speaker, Madam Vice President,” said Biden as he began. Those words had never been spoken in that chamber before. It was an intense moment, a piece of long-awaited history, and seemed to promise a day to come when all three seats in that upper podium will be occupied by women.
As for the content of the speech, well, it was a time warp all its own. Biden’s list of policy proposals represents something of a rewiring of the American experience, from work to family to school to medicine and science, from transportation to elder care. Much of what he proposed came thanks to the sustained pressure of progressives, which started the minute Biden won the nomination.
It was that very slate of markedly progressive proposals that kept the Republicans in their seats as if they were nailed to them. Even behind his mask, the smile on Bernie Sanders’s face when Biden said, “Health care is a right, not a privilege,” could be seen from space.
Could Biden have asked for more in his proposals? Absolutely, and progressive members of the House are marshaling their forces to see if they can improve upon them. “Congressional Democrats are planning to pursue a massive expansion of Medicare as part of President Biden’s new $1.8 trillion economic relief package,” reports The New York Times, “defying the White House after it opted against including a major health overhaul as part of its plan.”
To underscore this effort, newly elected progressive House Rep. Jamaal Bowman offered a rare Democratic rebuttal to a speech delivered by a Democratic president. Bowman praised Biden for his accomplishments to date, before daring him to do more. “The proposals that President Biden has put forward over the last few weeks would represent important steps — but don’t go as big as we’d truly need in order to solve the crises of jobs, climate and care,” said Bowman. “We need to think bigger.”
“With Democratic control of Congress and the White House,” reports Sharon Zhang for Truthout, “Bowman said now is the time to pass the bold policies that he highlighted in his speech. He mentioned climate bills, such as the Green New Deal for Public Housing and Green New Deal for Cities, introduced earlier this month by fellow progressive colleagues, including Ocasio-Cortez, to provide funding for more climate-friendly public housing and cities. Bowman also drew attention to the THRIVE Act, a $10 trillion infrastructure and climate justice bill of which Bowman is a lead sponsor. The bill, Bowman said, could potentially create 15 million union jobs to help the U.S. economy bounce back while at the same time addressing the climate crisis and environmental justice issues.”
There will be more of this, you can count on it, because Biden to date has revealed a very important aspect of his leadership style: When it comes to some issues, at least, he can be pressured and he can be moved. Progressives in Congress intend to use their influence at this unique juncture to maximum effect.
Pundits on the non-Fox networks heaped praise upon Biden and his soft, unassuming delivery. After four years of screams and rants from that podium, an hour of just business, the people’s business, was a balm. Comparisons to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and even Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” were bandied about.
The president can certainly take that as a compliment, but he ain’t no LBJ, and he ain’t no FDR. Not yet, anyway… and in a very important sense, he should hope to rise above those legacies if he can. Johnson’s grand plans were devoured by a ruinous war in Vietnam, and Roosevelt only achieved his lofty goals after cutting deals with racists and secessionists which exacerbated the horrors of the Jim Crow South.
The nose count does not favor the president at present. “Democratic senators had a 23-seat advantage during Roosevelt’s presidency and a 36-seat advantage during Johnson’s,” according to The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein. That, simply, makes legislative life a hell of a lot easier. Also, and not for nothing, but neither LBJ or FDR had a Joe Manchin lurking like a pulmonary embolism, waiting to find a place to clog up the works.
Biden’s slim majorities, and the short timetable to election 2022, make the road to fulfilling his intentions fraught with peril. Speeches like this are always wish lists. Last night, the president wished for the moon and stars. Now we see how much of it he can get.
The Republican rebuttal by Sen. Tim Scott provided a vivid counterpoint to the agenda set forth by the president. No policy ideas were offered beyond the rote recitation of right-wing culture war grievances. According to Scott, the violent divisions loose in this nation are the fault of Democrats. He said this in response to a speech delivered in the chamber that was sacked by hyper-violent Trump voters only four months ago.
At bottom, last night contained an important element of defiance: a full-throated declaration of war against the rancid legacy of Ronald Reagan. “Trickle-down economics has never worked,” the president announced to a mighty roar from half the chamber. Forty years of supply-side feed-the-rich economics has delivered us to this shabby estate, and the agenda laid out last night — if realized — would at long last begin to dismantle that legacy.
Former President Clinton can take note, too: The era of big government is back, maybe. The idea that government can help has been well-served since January, as Biden’s vaccine program has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Infection rates are dropping across the board, and while we have many masked miles to go before we sleep, we are in this better place because competent government has finally served the people like it is supposed to.
The wind at Biden’s back, even with his slim congressional majorities, is the simple fact that his proposals are wildly popular. Combine that with the increased public trust in government that has erupted in 2021, and Republicans face a grim task trying to throw rocks in this road. They will, of course they will, but ‘22 is coming, and the people are watching like hawks.