Joe Biden Just Might be the Democrats’ Ronald Reagan
Obama famously said that Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way Nixon and Clinton did not. Biden may just change it in a way it turns out his old boss did not, either.
Maybe it’s time we conservatives start taking Joe Biden seriously. After steamrolling Republicans and passing a $1.9 trillion COVID-relief package on a party-line basis, Biden is now pushing for $2.3 trillion in infrastructure spending along with a proposed corporate tax hike to pay for it.
If we ignore that much of this so-called infrastructure spending is for things like “human infrastructure,” not roads and bridges, we are still talking about a HUGE amount of money—and it’s only the first half of a two-part plan. But it’s not just the massive scale of spending that is remarkable. What’s remarkable is the way that Biden, once assumed to be a centrist compromiser, wants to jam through the plan. “Let’s work together and see if there’s a way for us to deliver this,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told Politico’s Ryan Lizza on Thursday, before hastening to add: “In the end, let me be clear, the president was elected to do a job.”
Where have I heard that before? Oh yeah. It was back in early February when 10 Republicans met with Biden in the Oval Office to talk about the COVID-relief package. They were barely out the door before White House press secretary Jen Psaki put out a statement very similar to Klain’s. In fact, I interpreted her words as follows: “...Biden wants bipartisan support, but not bipartisan compromise (at least, not much) because, after all, his plan ‘was carefully designed to meet the stakes of this moment.’”
My read of the moment turned out to be accurate, and I think it was indicative of the Biden administration’s strategy. The National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar has described that strategy as: “Go for broke in the next two years because it’s the last best chance to get things done before the inevitable backlash. It’s not the unity that was promised, but rather the power politics that a no-holds-barred operator like [Rahm] Emanuel or even Mitch McConnell would appreciate.”
Biden doesn’t come across as ruthless as Rahm or as amoral and calculating as Mitch, which actually makes him more effective. In baseball, a pitcher whose slow delivery belies his velocity is thought of as “sneaky fast.” The political version may be Joe Biden—who is both “sneaky fast” and, it turns out, “sneaky partisan.” In fact, Biden’s ability to tell people to go to hell (in a way that has them looking forward to the trip) might be his secret power.
During his short tenure as president, however, he is governing like a man on a mission, with grand aspirations of being a transformational president. If the backlash comes, it is possible that he will come to regret not having wooed Republican politicians. Or he could succeed beyond his wildest imagination, and his legacy could very well be having dramatically changed the size and scope of government in a manner that we haven’t seen since the likes of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. The latter is an especially interesting comparison, since the “Master of the Senate” inherited his liberal agenda from a younger, more charismatic, Democratic president.
But what about those of us who don’t actually want to fundamentally transform the nation? Who’s looking out for us?
Republicans aren’t doing a very good job of that. At least, I haven’t heard a lot of persuasive warnings about the danger of a debt crisis, inflation, or the possibility that tax hikes would be passed along to consumers, or even trickle down to employees. Where’s the concern about Democrats buying votes with free money? And—most importantly—why are Republicans so blasé about the death of limited government? If Biden is running up the score, part of the story is that Republicans are so focused on tilting at windmills, “owning the libs,” and battling the chimera, that they barely noticed sleepy Joe rewriting the social contract.
While campaigning for president in 2008, Barack Obama said, “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” The point is that you can be considered a successful two-term president (as, I think, Clinton and Obama generally were), and not come close to making lasting change. From a progressive point of view, Clinton’s mistake was triangulation, which involved co-opting Republican language, such as declaring, “The era of big government is over.” Biden, it seems, has gone a different direction.
Ronald Reagan took office with the goal of winning the Cold War and restoring optimism in America, and on both counts, he succeeded. But the Reagan Revolution also fundamentally reshaped the public consensus regarding the size and scope of government. “The long cycle of growth in the role and activism of the national Government in domestic affairs that began with F.D.R.'s New Deal ended with Reagan's New Federalism,'' wrote Richard P. Nathan of Princeton University. ''The Reagan Presidency has produced a fundamental redirection in the domestic policies of the U.S. Government, both in the spending of the Federal Government and in the substance and purposes of its domestic programs.''
What if Biden turns out to be the liberal answer to Reagan? But he’s the deviously cunning Reagan who only pretended to be old and doddering as a ruse, as portrayed by Phil Hartman on Saturday Night Live. Oh yeah, and unlike Reagan, his party controls both houses of Congress. What if Biden, who was often seen as a “transitional” caretaker who was tolerable to get rid of Donald Trump, turns out to be a truly transformational president who brings about a new political consensus? Imagine the irony if Obama turns out to have been the John the Baptist to Joe Biden’s Jesus Christ.
What if Biden’s the one they’ve been waiting for? As one pol might put it: this presidency could be a big f---ing deal!