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Whoever wrote Biden’s speech gets an A. It was essentially a laundry list of progressive ideas — but it didn’t feel like a laundry list because it included lots of morally uplifting transitions and personal connections, despite a handful of clichés about “America can do anything if we work together.”
The President delivered it with passion and without verbal slip-ups. He made the most of the occasion. A CNN poll found that 71% of viewers said that the speech made them feel more optimistic about the country’s direction.
Biden’s ideas — on voting rights, prescription drug prices, health-care reform (getting closer to Medicare for All, but not quite), immigration (including embracing the DREAM Act), workers’ rights and labor law reform, the $15 minimum wage, gun control, addressing violence against women, pre-school, free community colleges and increased Pell grants for college students, climate change and green jobs, combatting racial profiling by police and “systemic racism” (is this the first time a President has used that phrase in a speech to Congress?), U.S. relations with Russia and China, child care, paid family and medical leave, pay equality for women, infrastructure, confronting COVID-19, LGBT equality (“To all transgender Americans watching at home, especially young people, who are so brave, I want you to know, your President has your back”), raising taxes on the 1% (families with incomes over $400,000) and big corporations, and more — were far to the left of anything an American president has proposed in recent history. In March, Biden signed the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. A few weeks ago he released his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan. Wednesday night he added another $1.8 trillion in new spending for workers, families, and children.
Many commentators will compare Wednesday’s address to several speeches that President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave outlining his bold and pathbreaking New Deal agenda. In 1932, FDR beat the incumbent, Republican Herbert Hoover, with 57.4% of the vote. Although FDR ran for president in the midst of the worst economic disaster in America’s history, he did not campaign on a platform of progressive ideas. He was cautious and vague about his plans. His New Deal agenda evolved between his election in November and his inauguration in March 1933. A growing wave of mass protest — by workers, the jobless, farmers, consumers, and students — provided a backdrop to FDR’s increasing willingness to adopt progressive policies, including Social Security, a wide-ranging public jobs program, the minimum wage, the right of workers to unionize, unemployment insurance, subsidies to struggling farmers, the 8-hour workday, tough regulations on banks, a rural electrification plan, and public housing, among others. Getting his New Deal agenda through Congress was only possible because the Democrats had an overwhelming 60-36 majority in the Senate and a 311-117 majority in the House of Representatives — margins that increased in the 1934 mid-term election.
Biden took office in the midst of a double-whammy of an unprecedented COVID epidemic and the resulting worst economy since the Depression. Like FDR, he was viewed as a centrist, particularly compared with other candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. He beat the incumbent Republican Donald Trump with only 51.3% of the popular vote and 57% (306-232) of the Electoral College vote in an election that, despite the pandemic and efforts by Republicans to suppress the vote, saw one of the largest turnouts (66.7%) in modern history. But in contrast to the Roosevelt election of 1932, Biden’s political party won a narrow majority in the House (222-213), while splitting the Senate 50-50, an even divide only made possible at the last minute by the surprise victory of two Democrats in Georgia. In a highly polarized Senate, only the tie-breaking vote by Vice President Kamala Harris gives Biden any breathing room, assuming he can persuade all 50 Democrats to support his legislative agenda.
Biden’s speech was thus remarkable on several fronts.
First, Biden’s progressive agenda, including those points he outlined in his Wednesday speech, is made possible by a new surge of energy on the Left. Included in that resurgence are the campaigns of Sanders and Warren, as well as other prominent leftists such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the wave of activism by groups including Indivisible, the labor movement, the 2017 women’s march, Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers, that changed the national political debate and pushed the Democratic Party to the left. It was also made possible by the 2018 “blue wave” election and the 2020 victories of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia. (Kudos to Stacey Abrams). Despite the narrow Democratic margins in the House, the Progressive Caucus — with close to 100 members — is larger than it has ever been. Moreover, last year voters catapulted a growing number of progressives into office for mayor, city council, district attorney, county sheriff, state legislature, and other bodies, including more than 100 members of Democratic Socialists of America.
Second, Sanders or Warren could have given Biden’s speech. They would have pushed further — a wealth tax and Medicare for All, for example — but Biden has embraced most of what these two progressive icons proposed during last year’s campaign. But had either of them won the Democratic primary and then the presidency, it is highly doubtful that they could have gotten the traction that Biden has gotten. (I say this as someone who supported Bernie in 2016 and Warren in 2020 and was initially skeptical of Biden.) Paradoxically, Biden is a better messenger for this progressive agenda than Sanders and Warren because he was not viewed as a progressive. As a result he has the kind of power of evangelical preachers who say, “I was once a sinner like you and now I’ve been saved.” Smartly, Biden doesn’t acknowledge his transformation. He just lets people see him evolve.
Third, much of Biden’s appeal and success so far is due to being the opposite of Trump. Most Americans were exhausted by four years of having a narcissistic, corrupt, and white supremacist president who cared little about governing and viewed the White House as a subsidiary of his business operation. Biden evokes “normalcy,” although nothing he has proposed is normal.
Fourth, what Biden is doing is impressive and unprecedented, but it will not satisfy some leftists, including the writers for Jacobin magazine and the armchair radicals that populate much of academia. Of course, if one, two or three Democratic senators (Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kristin Sinema and Mark Kelley of Arizona) thwart much or most of Biden’s proposals (either on substance or by refusing to overturn the filibuster), these super-leftists will blame Biden and paint the entire Democratic Party as in bed with Wall Street and corporate America, despite overwhelming support for the agenda by Democrats in Congress and rank-and-file Democratic voters.
Finally, despite Biden’s efforts to appeal to Republicans, it is unlikely that he will be able to recruit many (perhaps any) GOP members of Congress to embrace most of his agenda. Throughout the speech, Biden asked Republicans to find common ground, even sending an olive branch by asking those who disagreed with him to come up with better ideas. This is not going to happen. The Republicans in Congress are aligned with or afraid of Trump and his appeal to rank-and-file Republicans. The party has moved so far to the right that even conservatives Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are sometimes described as “moderates.” Fox News, the National Rifle Association, the Chamber of Commerce, white evangelical Christians (who represented 28% of all 2020 voters and gave Trump 76% of their votes), and right-wing funders like Charles Koch, Sheldon Adelson, Bernard Marcus, Robert and Rebekah Mercer, and Geoff Palmer still dominate the party. It will be interesting to see if any of the largest corporations and CEOs that threatened to withhold campaign donations to Republicans who have embraced racist voter suppression laws — which were adopted in Georgia and are pending in other states — will carry through and maintain their promises. If so, we might see the GOP fracture further, in a way that could dramatically alter the future of American politics.
Peter Dreier is professor of Politics and the founding chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His books include Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, and the forthcoming Baseball Rebels: The Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America.