If you expected President Joe Biden to be a stuttering old man with a puzzled look on his face and wearing Depends, you may be disappointed. In his first 100 days and in his first speech to a joint session of Congress, Biden’s clear vision for the country has shown his potential as a transformational President rather than a transitional one. And a majority of the American people seem just fine with that.
Franklin Roosevelt had the Depression and 1933 financial crisis to spur him on, and, in his first 100 days, he rolled out 15 major pieces of legislation, passing 76 bills in all. Americans wanted action across the board, and, with a few exceptions (including packing the Supreme Court), Congress gave FDR what he wanted. Joe Biden, facing the existential challenges of a pandemic, covid-related job losses and damaging climate change, is also going big in his programmatic initiatives, but he won’t get the Congressional support that FDR did. With razor-close Democratic margins in both House and Senate, Biden can only dream of the nearly three-to-one margin FDR enjoyed in the 73rd Congress.
All Presidents since the 1930’s have come up short compared to FDR’s productivity. Biden, for example, has signed 11 bills into law. He has also issued 42 executive orders. Despite the hyper-partisanship that Republicans are providing, Biden’s first 100 days have witnessed passage of the Covid-19 Relief Law (the American Rescue Plan), along with the more than doubling of the President’s stated goal for vaccinations. Equally important, and not reflected by the number of laws signed, has been the restoration of empathy, kindness, respectful demeanor, and international outreach that a majority of Americans voted for in November.
Biden’s overall approval rating of 53 percent (NBC/PBS/Marist poll, 52 percent ABC poll), while far better than Trump’s, still reflects the nation’s deep partisan divide. This in turn encourages most GOP members of Congress not to give him the time of day. Seems they can smell regaining Congressional in 2022 and insist on denying him even a whiff of bipartisan support. Biden, however, hasn’t given up on bipartisanship, at least as an opening gambit.
Infrastructure should be a place where bipartisanship is possible. For his sweeping plan (think blue collar jobs), he insists he is open to other ideas. But, he warns – and not without reason -, the rest of the world is not waiting for us. Given the China challenge, “doing nothing is not an option.” The devil, of course, is in the details, and he has to sell to this country that going beyond roads, bridges, airports, power grids, high-speed internet, clean water and air to include human infrastructure is reasonable and affordable. He has to persuade doubters that pre-school education, community college and certificate programs, child care are once-in-a-generation investments in our country’s future, not just another stream of entitlements that will be baked into future budget deficits.
Still, several snap polls taken right after the President’s speech last night showed between 73 percent and 85 percent of Americans who watched the speech approved of it and felt more optimistic about where the country is going. [But many Republicans likely didn’t even watch.]
Programmatically, the devil is always in the details. For now, however, we have a clear ideological blueprint for the Democratic Party.
Biden’s grand vision will not please small government Republicans and a handful of Joe Manchin Democrats. But it includes a lot that many Americans want. There’s substantial support even among Republican voters (if not their elected representatives) for major parts of the infrastructure bill, the American Jobs Plan. That support is not just for roads and bridges but expanded high-speed broadband, pay for elderly care givers, energy efficiency measures and fixing the electric grid. Substantial numbers of Republican voters support the Green New Deal. The question is whether 21st century Republicans can put country over party and their short-term self-interest. I fear we know the answer.
Surely, if Biden painted a modest picture, his opening gambit would be whittled down to nothing. This vision, even when adjusted by the coming political reality, leaves us with a giddy feeling of optimism and a refreshing upbeat spirit about a transformed social contract and an America on the move. The immediate task is to get Joe Manchin and Kristen Sinema on board.