Those were two very different speeches Wednesday night, but both were effective and each will have an afterlife.
President Biden’s address, with its distancing, masks and half-empty audience, at first didn’t feel like the convening of a great nation’s Congress. It felt insubstantial and goofy, like they were playacting Pandemic Theatre.
Mr. Biden turned that strangeness into a virtue. His speech was conversational, unhurried, not like somebody talking to a big room and waiting for applause but more intimate. His self-presentation was that of well-meaning and peaceable man with a heart for the poor and a natural identification with working men and women. In mostly plain words he painted historically high spending and taxing as a simple and legitimate attempt, one well within the boundaries of American political tradition, to increase the nation’s quotient of happiness. “No one should have to choose between a job and paycheck, or taking care of themselves and a loved one, a parent, spouse or child.” We must help each other, isn’t this common sense? There were populist notes.
It helps Mr. Biden that nobody hates him.
George W. Bush
was passionately hated;
or at least “the Clintons,” were hated by the end. It’s early, but Mr. Biden is an exception to the recent rule. Not being hated is a power now.
His program has been characterized so often, by left and right, as a sweeping progressive agenda that we hereby give it that title. The SPA offers expanded child care and healthcare subsidies, preschool for all children, more family and medical leave, free community college, heavy spending on infrastructure, programs to address climate change. Nobody seems to know what the numbers are. Is it $4 trillion in new spending or $6 trillion? Four trillion in new taxes?
The president said again he is eager to negotiate with Republicans. There isn’t much evidence of this, but here are the reasons he should be treating them with respect and as equal partners. It would be good for the country to see the Senate actually working—negotiating, making deals, representing constituencies. It would be good for the Democrats to show they’re not just playing steamroller and flattening the Republicans; they’re reasoning because they’re reasonable. Also they need Republicans to co-own legislative outcomes because whatever they are they’ll be very liberal. Negotiation and compromise would suggest the increasingly powerful but relatively unpopular progressive left isn’t driving everything. Finally, it would help get the support of moderate Democrats. It isn’t only Republican voters the president was trying to persuade over the heads of Republican senators; it was moderate Democrats over the head of
It is not good for the administration that it is increasingly seen as in the pocket of the progressive left. In a virtual town hall last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was highly enthusiastic. The Biden White House has “exceeded expectations progressives had,” she said. “I think a lot of us expected a much more conservative administration.” The White House’s willingness to work closely with progressives has been “very impressive.” “There has been a lot of openness and willingness and flexibility in incorporating many of our goals, requests, demands, etc.”
That was saying the quiet part out loud.
On the other hand, the president isn’t looking or acting as if he’s been dragged left. He seems to enjoy no longer having to be a moderate in sync with the Delaware of the 1980s and ’90s. The pandemic has been hard. He’s letting his inner Fighting
out and having fun being popular with people in the party who never liked him. He reportedly bragged to cable anchors this week that no one thought he could unite his party, but he has.
The SPA has been called a gamble, and of course it is. Will a majority of Americans back it in the end, will it produce inflation or other harmful effects? Republicans, understandably and legitimately, warn against high spending and high taxing and anticipate big voter pushback. That’s how it’s always been: Mr. Clinton raises taxes in 1993 and gets a brutal midterm in ’94; Mr. Obama invents ObamaCare in 2009 and gets clobbered in ’10.
of Cook Political Report says watch the suburbs:
a GOP strategist, has been involved in qualitative research on suburban voters in battleground states, and college-educated men and women there are “cautiously optimistic” about the future because the country is “correcting,” returning to normal. But “higher taxes and spending” are big concerns.
All this sounds right, and yet. I’m not sure things are as predictable as in the past. The chess pieces are moving all over the board. My eyes and ears tell me that in the past year America began a deep reconsideration of how it lives, and how things have always been. The process of the big rethink will become clearer in the next few years, but I sense the young, those in their 20s and 30s and maybe older, are questioning that oldest American tradition: ambition. Hunger to make your own circumstances better. They’re questioning what “better” means, how it is defined and what price you are willing to pay to rise. I think I sense a hunger for something new, less driven, more communal. If I’m right that hunger will play out, in part, in the political sphere. But something happened during the pandemic. We’ll find out what in the next decade.
Republicans shouldn’t assume what has been true the past 40 years will be true now. I see more support for governmental spending in general, and some not fully formed feelings about the taxing aspect. No one loves the megarich. If Mr. Biden’s tax increases don’t clobber the middle and upper-middle classes, I wouldn’t count on all the old pushback.
Maybe the SPA is not only a gamble but also a mystery.
Sen. Tim Scott’s
response, he’s been on the rise in the party for a while now and his speech was strong because it offered a perfect balance of public-policy realism and faith. On race: “I have experienced the pain of discrimination. I know what it feels like to be pulled over for no reason, to be followed around a store while I’m shopping.” “I get called Uncle Tom and the N-word by progressives, by liberals.” “Our healing is not finished.” He has written police-reform bills, which Democrats blocked because they wanted the issue active, not resolved. He threw down a gauntlet: “Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country.” The left exploded on social media and insulted him exactly as he said they do. This mild man never tries to own the libs, but he owns them the minute he walks in the room.
He ended with words a lot of quiet Americans would hear and deeply appreciate: “Original sin is never the end of the story. Not in our souls and not for the nation. The real story is always redemption.” Broadcasters missed the meaning, thinking it was just some sweet Christian talk. No, it was about the heart of the human drama, the heart of this nation’s drama. It was about the reason to keep trying. Republicans are going to remember this speech.
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