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Biden’s Opportunity to Reinvigorate America

He is ignoring the culture wars and focusing on things that matter—but huge obstacles remain in his way.
March 22, 2021
Biden’s Opportunity to Reinvigorate America
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks in the State Dining Room of the White House on March 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The American Rescue Plan, a landmark achievement, is nonetheless but a prelude to Joe Biden’s larger project: reanimating government to reinvigorate our society. He stands at a precious political moment where much is possible, but nothing certain.

Biden understands this well. Shortly after signing the stimulus bill, he observed: “This is the first time we’ve been able, since the Johnson administration and maybe even before that, to begin to change the paradigm.”

In a mere two months as president, Biden has commenced reversing four decades of economic policy which held that concerns about income inequality, worker insecurity, the maldistribution of wealth, and swelling corporate power were antithetical to growth. But the fruits of “shareholder capitalism,” it transpires, have accrued to a privileged few.

For the many, this ethos bred an accelerating pathology which weakened our economic and social cohesion: deepening wealth and wage disparities; declining opportunity; shrinking unions; ill-paying jobs; disappearing benefits; vanishing healthcare; eroding infrastructure; and a festering generational divide. Plutocracy beckons.

These untenable conditions were starkly exposed by COVID-19. Observed the New York Times:

In America, your experience of lockdown—and of the pandemic as a whole—depended not on luck or chance or fortune. It was instead largely foretold by something far more prosaic: the position you held on the socioeconomic spectrum, by your class, race and gender. Across so many issues, the pandemic [reflects] . . . two lines moving in different directions.

As the Times elucidated, privileged Americans could work from home, use delivery services, save money, and stay healthy. But for an overreliance on Netflix, life proceeded much as before.

Not so for the less fortunate. Low-income workers were more vulnerable to COVID. People of color died at much greater rates than whites. Unemployment among blacks, Latinos, and women was disproportionately high.

Hunger menaced; rents rose; homelessness loomed. The digital divide exacerbated widening educational inequities. Small wonder, then, that discrepancies in vaccination rates most affect communities of color.

Confronted with this corrosive dysfunction, Joe Biden has embraced a transformative vision—to enlist government in unleashing the potential of ordinary Americans to better their lives and enrich our country.

The moment is right. Across the ideological spectrum, there is widening agreement that we must redress our societal ills by reimagining government. Writes David Brooks: “Reaganism was the right response to the stagflation of the 1970s, but Bidenism is a sensible response to a very different set of economic problems. . . . There was a premise through American history that if you worked hard you would earn economic security. That’s not as true for millennials and Gen-Z, or many other people across America.”

He concludes:

Income inequality, widespread child poverty and economic precarity are the problems of our time. It’s worth taking a risk to tackle all this. At first Biden seemed like the third chapter of the Clinton/Obama center-left era. But this is something new.

With the stimulus bill, Biden built momentum for profound and lasting change. Faced with obdurate opposition from the GOP, he forged the compromises among Democrats necessary to enact a plan far more ambitious than that which followed the Great Recession.

It grants immediate relief to millions of middle- and low-income Americans, including $1,400 payments, a weekly unemployment subsidy, and cheaper health insurance. But its heart is more ambitious—the most sweeping anti-poverty program in fifty years.

One linchpin is an expanded child tax credit, payable monthly, which resembles a universal basic income program. “President Biden has often talked about the need to invest in our kids as a matter of moral importance,” says communications director Kate Bedingfield. “But it’s also a matter of economic importance, and it’s an investment in our competitiveness as a country.”

This credit is projected to cut child poverty in half. Overall, experts predict, Biden’s program will reduce American poverty by more than one-third.

Politically, its passage could mark a sea change in how Americans perceive government. The bill does not establish new bureaucracies; instead, voters will feel its impact directly—not only in their pocketbooks, but in fortifying local institutions like schools, hospitals, health centers, and transportation systems. Notably, polling shows widespread support among lower-income Republicans who, astonishingly, seem more concerned with the fate of their children than the gender of Mr. Potato Head.

This leaves Biden’s adamant Republican opponents searching for lines of attack, and conservative intellectuals pondering the merits of a child tax credit. Increasingly, those concerned with promoting stable families recognize that working parents are struggling to find adequate childcare; spend enough time with their kids; or, if necessary or desirable, care for them at home.

Naturally enough, Republicans with children may find much in Biden’s program to like. When Marco Rubio complains that per-child payments without a work requirement constitute “welfare,” some may ask what’s wrong with a program which enables some parents to seek needed employment—and others, if they can, to stay home with the kids.

Capitalizing on widespread public approval, Biden and his team are determined that the relief package not become a pandemic-driven anomaly, but the predicate for sweeping legislation which would rebuild infrastructure, create jobs, and fund clean energy. One lesson of the 2009 Obama stimulus, they believe, is that the public underappreciated its accomplishments. Accordingly, they are traveling the country to delineate exactly what Biden’s bill provides.

There may find a receptive electorate. A new survey from the Center for American Progress suggests that a majority of Americans believes that government should help secure the elements of a decent life—housing, education, healthcare, and food. More surprisingly, the report found widespread support for paid sick leave; paid leave for workers with newborn kids or sick family members; and $1 trillion in spending on infrastructure. “For the first time in my lifetime,” Barney Frank told the Washington Post, “people are saying that the government has done too little rather than doing too much.”

In this changed environment, Democrats can drive home that every Republican legislator voted against everything their voters like. As Thomas B. Edsall notes, it helps that a plurality of beneficiaries are working-class whites—Trump’s base.

The Democrats mean to circumvent the culture wars by making a direct economic appeal which cuts across political polarization. In the meanwhile, Mitch McConnell is threatening a scorched-earth Senate, and Kevin McCarthy is demonizing migrants, reading Dr. Seuss aloud, and dancing attendance on the Mad King of Mar-a-Lago. This is the Democrats’ real chance to pass a progressive agenda, peel off Republican voters, and build a durable electoral and congressional majority.

But despite Biden’s early mastery, he must surmount several serious problems which, in combination, are potentially insuperable: GOP gerrymandering and voter suppression; a closely divided Congress; the inapplicability of the reconciliation process to significant legislation; ideological disagreements among Democrats; and—especially—Republican filibusters.

Several of these challenges were augured by the stimulus bill. Because of the filibuster, Democrats resorted to the reconciliation process, which enables laws regarding fiscal matters to pass the Senate with a bare majority. Nonetheless, Biden’s bill passed by a single vote—after contentious negotiations between party moderates and progressives. Moreover, the peculiarities of reconciliation mean that key provisions—like the child tax credit—expire after one year.

Infrastructure presents another quandary. Variously: Republicans refuse to fund it through higher taxes. Moderate Democrats want a bipartisan bill, but oppose financing infrastructure through deficit spending instead raising taxes. Progressives don’t care about seeking Republican support, and want the most ambitious program. Neatly, the GOP has created a legislative maze which requires that moderate Democrats from red or purple states jettison bipartisanship to rebuild infrastructure—setting up another contentious negotiation with progressives to find, if they can, a consensus path to fifty Democratic votes.

Consider, then, that a Republican filibuster will kill any bill not subject to reconciliation. Contemplate, further, the Republicans’ nationwide efforts to pass restrictive voter ID laws; hamstring voting by mail; eliminate polling places in Democratic areas; purge voter rolls; and, especially, exacerbate the partisan gerrymandering which already gives the GOP an artificial advantage toward retaking the House in 2022—thereafter dooming Biden’s legislative agenda.

The Democrats’ only recourse is to pass H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. But if the filibuster remains intact, they can’t. And two moderate Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have committed to maintaining it.

The stakes, quite likely, are historic—not simply the success of Biden’s presidency, but of his ultimate mission: rebuilding faith in our society, and its political and electoral institutions. We are heading for a combustible confrontation between our urgent needs for national renewal and an archaic Senate rule with no constitutional foundation which, as Dick Durbin so aptly says, is “making a mockery of American democracy.”

Joe Biden is an institutionalist. But he means, above all, to transform this country for the better. In the end, the obligations of a president may compel him to ask two senators to make this moment matter—for it may never come again.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.