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Biden’s third run for the White House was successful because of who he is not. He won the primary by not being Bernie Sanders and the general by not being Donald Trump. Rather than focus on his proposals or experience, Biden won the nomination and presidency by making each election a referendum on his opponent. He convinced Democratic primary voters, especially African Americans, that Bernie was too liberal, and he convinced suburban swing voters that Trump was too erratic. Voters embraced the genial veteran lawmaker who promised a return to normalcy, bipartisanship, and incremental change as he focused on the COVID health crisis and the resulting economic slowdown.
Candidate Biden rejected progressive positions like the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, packing the Supreme Court, and ending the filibuster as too extreme. But President Biden has explicitly embraced President Obama’s desire to be transformational. Whereas the latter cited Reagan as his model, given the magnitude, if not the direction, of the Republican president’s impact, historians and pundits are already comparing Biden to liberal icons FDR and LBJ.
In the 2020 election, Republicans were on track for a majority in the Senate. But thanks to discouraged Trump voters staying home in the Georgia runoffs, Democrats won both Georgia seats to end up with a 51–50 majority (with the Democratic vice president as the 51st). Democrats kept a very small House majority, largely because Republicans didn’t recruit enough candidates to benefit from an unexpectedly good election environment. One would think such slim majorities would hold back the party in power. But Democrats are rushing to transform the country with an urgency driven precisely by the fear of losing their edge in the House in the 2022 midterms.
Americans elected Biden in part to help the nation overcome the pandemic. They were tired of successive waves of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, not to mention lockdowns, mask mandates, and the economy’s downward spiral. Despite his claim to the contrary, Biden inherited effective vaccines developed under the previous administration’s Operation Warp Speed, and his original goal of 100 million doses in 100 days simply continued the pace nearly achieved by Trump. The vaccines were developed and approved faster than experts had predicted, and America raced ahead of most of the world with advance purchase agreements with pharmaceutical companies. Trump loyalists wonder what the electoral impact might have been if the FDA had not adopted stringent guidelines in October that delayed vaccine approval, and if Pfizer had had enough data to announce vaccine efficacy findings before the election instead of immediately after.
In his first big move, Biden pushed for a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package. But very little of the bill’s spending was directed at public health. The supposed “relief” included welfare provisions like expanded Affordable Care Act subsidies and a refundable child tax credit that Democrats hope to make permanent. The bill included other unrelated provisions such as an $86 billion pension bailout for unions, though the Senate parliamentarian — asked to weigh in on rules for passing bills through the reconciliation procedure — barred the inclusion of a $15 federal minimum wage and a $140 million California subway earmark. Meanwhile, $1 trillion from previous relief bills passed under Trump was still unspent. And the United States will spend $5 trillion, or $43,000 per household, on COVID, an amount that dwarfs what other countries have spent and what America has spent on previous crises.
When ten moderate Republican senators proposed a more targeted $618 billion package, Biden met them for a photo op but refused to negotiate. Biden’s actions signaled that his idea of bipartisanship was for Republicans to accede to Democrats’ demands. Nevertheless, the media gave him credit for reaching out and blamed Republicans for being obstructionists. Whereas Trump had signed five bipartisan COVID relief bills, Democrats insisted on passing the sixth through a partisan reconciliation process.
Biden’s public approval has benefited from widespread vaccine distribution and progress toward herd immunity that would have happened regardless of the election’s outcome. He has adopted a lower public profile, contrasting himself with Trump’s outsized presence, and enjoys a favorably disposed media. Given those factors, Biden is using his political capital to advance a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure bill. While there is strong bipartisan support for investments in roads, ports, and bridges, the president has expanded the definition of infrastructure to include Medicaid and Community Development Block Grants, child-care facilities, public schools, community colleges, workforce training, and pro-union restrictions on employer activities. As Rahm Emanuel famously said in 2008, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
On an even larger scale, Biden has embraced the ambitious goals of restructuring nearly every aspect of American society and the economy to address the nation’s racial disparities and to impede what liberals see as an apocalyptic climate-change threat. These are the two goals that animate progressives’ moral crusade. The result of the first push will be a bigger, more powerful government and a society endlessly obsessed with discovering and compensating new victims. The result of the second, despite Biden’s rejection of the Green New Deal in name, will be a plan that is comprehensive in scope and radical in nature. Biden’s takeaway from Obama’s nearly $800 billion stimulus was that it failed to generate enough growth or other tangible benefits to protect Democratic congressional majorities while still inciting unified Republican opposition: Obama’s mistake was that he did not spend, tax, or borrow enough.
An issue that has reared its head with force since Biden was elected is the filibuster. Whereas 61 senators endorsed retention of the filibuster when Republicans held the White House and Congress in 2017, Democrats now decry the protection of minority rights as archaic, rooted in racism, and rewarding obstructionism. Democrats justify their flip-flop by citing recent abuse of the filibuster — but they were the ones using the tactic to block Republican policies when they were in the minority. As for the racism charge, Biden wields it similarly to decry Georgia’s voting-reform law as “Jim Crow in the 21st Century.” In both cases, Democrats are smearing Republicans without any attempt to engage in a discussion of substantive differences, let alone plain facts.
On Court-packing, Biden has skirted the issue by appointing a commission to look into expanding the Supreme Court. He says he won’t adopt slash-and-burn tactics but threatens Republicans that they might force him to do so by refusing to give in on a host of issues: granting D.C. statehood, federalizing and loosening election safeguards, creating a health-insurance public option, approving historic tax increases and new debt, curtailing Second Amendment and religious-liberty rights, and offering illegal immigrants amnesty. Democrats will find a way to justify eradicating political constraints that they and the media insisted were necessary to contain Trump.
When Republicans ran Washington, they enacted tax cuts, appointed conservative judges, and repealed regulations, but they were unable to achieve bigger changes such as repealing Obamacare, lowering drug prices, or reducing the size of government. Biden intends to do much more than that. Biden’s understated demeanor is nothing like Trump’s aggressive personality, but he is playing political hardball. He sees himself as empowered to make radical changes. Voters who elected Biden hoping he would deemphasize the importance of politics in their lives and reduce society’s polarization are in for a rude awakening.