Forty years ago, Ronald Reagan took office amid an economic crisis and lack of faith in the government. His inaugural address touted a less overarching government for recovery: “In this present crisis, the government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” President Biden’s first joint address offered the complete opposite message: in the current crisis, the government is the solution to America’s problems.
“America is on the move again,” Biden said, touting his administration’s progress on the recovery efforts of the pandemic: vaccinations, economic growth, and job creation—which the President cited as results of the American Rescue Plan. Any fear from Democrats that Biden would be too moderate were dashed; Biden gave a strong repudiation of Republican tax cuts for the rich and “trickle-down economics.”
President Biden offered a glowing vision of America’s future through the expansion of the federal government. Biden discussed many ambitious—and sometimes progressive—policy initiatives that would further expand the federal government to help the lower and middle classes, such as the American Jobs Plan, the American Families Plan, and the PRO Act. Additionally, he also called upon Congress to renew the Violence Against Women Act and pass the Equality Act to protect LGBTQ+ Americans and pass H.R. 1. I will not go into detail about every single one of these, as there is simply too much to discuss.
If there should be any takeaway, it is that the era of “big government” is back. President Biden is perfectly willing to use the federal government to transform the American economy and American society as we know it, and his agenda has been compared to that of two previous administrations: Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
Those making this comparison would not be wrong; Biden is essentially calling for the most governmental action since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The proposals for infrastructure improvement in the American Jobs Plan draws parallels to New Deal programs like the Public Works Administration and Tennessee Valley Authority; the former contracted private companies to improve on and construct new public facilities and infrastructure, while the latter provided electricity to rural southerners in addition to building dams around the Tennessee River to prevent flooding. H.R. 1 is the most sweeping proposal for voting reform since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and it does not just encompass voting, either. The PRO Act and American Families Plan both target the working and middle class; the former seeks to protect and strengthen the right to unionize, while the latter will make a college education much more accessible.
If Biden is able to fulfill even half of these proposals, he will have earned his spot among the likes of FDR and LBJ, who saw how much governmental power could do to improve the lives of Americans and set out to make it happen.
Still, major differences between Biden and Roosevelt/Johnson must be acknowledged. Though Biden has a vision, he does not have the tools to fulfill them. Both Roosevelt and Johnson had supermajorities in the House and Senate; they could overcome any filibuster and be basically handed blank checks by the American voters. Additionally, the Republican Party of their time was much more moderate and in line with the Democrats than those of the Republicans today. Biden faces a Republican party that will be 100% against any of his proposals, who have already deemed his speech “radical” or “socialist” or any other buzzword you can think of. He has razor-thin margins in the House and Senate, with two of the more moderate Democratic Senators in Manchin and Sinema perfectly willing to oppose his agenda.
Overall, Biden’s first joint address offered much to look forward to for those on the left. Still, the passage of his proposals will be a long and strenuous trek. For Biden, it is crucial that the Democrats expand their margins in the House and Senate during the 2022 midterms: if a single one of the aforementioned bills (or any other that Biden has expressed support for) is passed, it would be a huge momentum boost for the Democrats.