Joe Biden Went Big (Except For When He Didn’t)

Behind the president’s unabashed progressivism was a hard-headed attempt to bolster his negotiating position.

President Joe Biden, in his first address to a joint session of Congress, laid out a sweeping vision for an America transformed through unapologetically activist government. Twenty-five years after Bill Clinton declared that the “era of big government is over,” Biden leveraged his soothing, warm, grandfatherly demeanor to the hilt and refurbished the image government from a Capitol that was under siege less than four months ago. “It’s time we remembered that ‘We the People’ are the government,” Biden exhorted, “You and I. Not some force in a distant capital. Not some powerful force we have no control over. It’s us.”

That statement helped close an address centered on his two biggest legislative proposals, and he did not hesitate to boast about their scope. The American Jobs Plan is “the largest jobs plan since World War II.” The American Families Plan would, among other things, add “four years of public education,” extend the American Relief Plan’s expansion of the child tax credit through 2025 and permanently extend its enhanced health insurance subsidies.

Yet Biden’s address was also flecked with calls for compromise. He went light on red lines, downplayed certain progressive wish-list items, and left others out entirely. Biden’s sober calm has made us love normalcy. But Biden may be trying to prepare us for another kind of normalcy—the legislative kind— with its frustrating tedium and hard-to-love concessions.

Biden repeatedly urged bipartisan negotiation in his hour-long address. Instead of insisting on passing his jobs plan as is, he chose to “applaud the group of Republican senators who put forth their own proposal” and signaled his interest in “deep discussions” with “those who have ideas that are different that they think are better.” He did not berate Republicans for resisting police reform; he assured that “I know Republicans have their own ideas and are engaged in productive discussions with Democrats in the Senate.” When it came to immigration reform, he offered to Republicans that “if you don’t like my plan, let’s at least pass what we all agree on.”  He did a shout out to Mitch McConnell for urging him to name a cancer research bill after his late son Beau and even did an elbow bump with Liz Cheney.

The harshest he got towards Republicans was when he talked about universal background checks for gun purchases: “I don’t want to become confrontational. We need more Senate Republicans to join the overwhelming majority of Democratic colleagues and close the loopholes…” (The preceding apologetic sentence was not in Biden’s prepared remarks.)

Biden issued no threats to abolish or weaken the filibuster. There was no talk of using the budget reconciliation process. There were no warnings that Democrats would go it alone if Republicans did not cooperate, although that perhaps was implicit.

That doesn’t mean Biden wouldn’t cut off bipartisan talks at some point. But White House messaging during the pandemic relief legislative process was more pointed and less accommodating of Republican lawmakers, informed by the expectation that Republican votes would not be needed. Clearly, Biden thinks Republican votes may be needed now.

Also of note was what Biden did not say. He did not utter the multi-trillion price tags of the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, nor did he insist either plan must be of a certain size. Biden instead assured that the jobs plan would “add … trillions of dollars in economic growth” [emphasis added]. Cost was not on his mind. This may be an example of clever political packaging, but it also helps with negotiating. The only red line Biden drew is that he won’t “impose any tax increase on anyone making less than $400,000.” As far as how much spending must be part of the deal, Biden has maintained complete flexibility.

Biden did not propose a public health insurance option or specify interest in lowering Medicare’s age of eligibility and expanding the suite of benefits, something he has supported. He suggested that if Congress could “lower prescription drug costs”— something adamantly opposed by Big Pharma—the resulting savings could help “expand Medicare without costing taxpayers an additional penny.” Still, he did not detail what might be in any such expansion. In the Democratic presidential primary, the debate was between single-payer and a public option. Now, the Overton Window has shifted rightward, with almost no talk of public plans and Biden settling for bigger subsidies for insurance packages within the existing Affordable Care Act.

At times when Biden went bigger, he must have done so knowing his chances of success are slim to none, such as when he called for Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act and a $15 minimum wage. Both worker-oriented bills are short of 50 Democratic supporters. Democrats can’t pass either bill through regular order, reconciliation, or a mythological Senate scrubbed of the filibuster. Biden appears to be simply checking those boxes on the progressive wish list so his union allies can’t easily blame him for throwing in the towel. His words, though about a “blueprint” for “blue-collar” jobs and a goal of building turbines in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing, showed he had rejected the once fashionable advice that the party fully give up on the white working class.

Biden also expended minimal time—about 40 seconds, including time for applause—on voting rights legislation, which for some Democrats is their highest priority but faces a brick wall of Republican opposition and the insistence of Sen. Joe Manchin that any election reform legislation must be bipartisan. Compare that to the five minutes Biden spent on another steep challenge, convincing Republicans to accept tax increases on corporations and the wealthy. Biden clearly expects to engage in an extended debate over how to pay for his infrastructure plans and put effort into pre-butting likely counter-arguments. He did not see the need to do the same for voting rights.

Biden’s posture was gentle, explanatory. A less crowded, quieter chamber made the evening more fireside chat than barnburner. But even-keeled is not timid. At 78, Biden radiates optimism about big, delivering tangible gains for the average American household, many of which he may not live to see. It’s the Democratic vision without the circumspection of Carter, Clinton, and Obama. The now frequent comparisons to a pre-Vietnam LBJ make sense. Government delivers more and better-paying jobs, more affordable education and more years of it, more green energy, and even greener pastures.

At the same time, the legislative realist in Biden has not been suppressed. It was apparent to anyone who looked at what he did and didn’t say during this rare opportunity to address the country at length in prime time. He didn’t undersell, but nor did he overpromise. He sketched out a bold, progressive vision, yes. But he did so to solidify his support and improve his negotiating position. And negotiate he will.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

YES, I'LL MAKE A DONATION

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"