Biden, the anti-Reagan: His speech to Congress calls for era of more government


Given the message of Joe Biden’s first presidential speech to the U.S. Congress, he could hardly have chosen a more symbolically fitting date to deliver it.

April 28.

On the exact same date, 40 years ago, another first-year president strode into that chamber under heavy applause on a mission to chop: to cut back government, and taxes.

Ronald Reagan had just survived an assassination attempt and at a moment of towering personal popularity successfully persuaded Congress to slash taxes and welfare.

Biden’s program would slam the door on that era. The new president’s speech promised more: More taxes on the wealthy, more taxes on corporations, and more social spending.

Reagan famously referred to government as a problem. Biden on Wednesday night offered an ode to government, a rare thing in modern American political oratory. He noted it was public funding that paid for America’s transcontinental railroad, the interstate highway system, the Internet, schools, college aid, the Moon landing, the exploration of Mars, and the current mass-vaccination drive.

“We the People are the government. You and I,” Biden said.

U.S. President Joe Biden, centere, turns to U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, after speaking during a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

He recapped policies he’s already announced, like a just-signed $1.9 trillion pandemic relief law that temporarily expands the safety net and a $2 trillion proposal to accelerate the clean energy transformation.

Then he announced yet another trillion-dollar plan: A program for families that would expand access to public health care, child care, paid leave, and tax credits.

How would he pay for it? More taxes. Biden would seriously ramp up taxes on corporations, and on investment profits for the wealthiest Americans.

He would also increase the individual tax rate a couple of percentage points for the highest income earners who earn more that $515,400 per year. Reagan took a chainsaw to those rates. Under Reagan’s watch the top rate in the 1980s went from 70 per cent, to 38.5, to 28 in Reagan’s final year.

And that’s the program Reagan urged lawmakers to pass on April 28, 1981, in his first public speech after surviving a shooting.

“Our government is too big, and it spends too much,” Reagan said. Reagan, however, benefited from one dynamic lacking in Biden-era America, and its rarity is the one central fact of American politics that touches nearly everything else.

Same chamber, same date, opposite message

That is help from his political opposition.

In that less bitter and polarized time, a staggering 44 out of 47 Democrats in the Senate voted to help their opponent, Reagan, enact the centrepiece of his agenda. In part that was a product of a desire to kick-start the economy after a lean decade.

Pressure to fight the other side

But it also highlights a thorny problem Biden will have to navigate if he’s to have any hope of enacting his agenda.

Back then, the opposition party felt pressure to help Reagan. It’s reflected in a colourful memoir by a former aide to Tip O’Neill, then the Democratic speaker of the House of Representative.

A Democratic lawmaker mutters that Reagan is so popular he could successfully pass a law to ban lovemaking. (The original quote uses saltier language).

Almost every Democrat in the Senate voted to enact Ronald Reagan’s tax-cutting agenda. There is no chance of such unanimity on Biden’s plan to raise taxes and social spending, which is opposed by the current minority party, the Republicans, starting with their Senate leader Mitch McConnell, seen here Wednesday. (Melina Mara/Reuters)

Compare that to a newer memoir about the Obama era, from a more recent House speaker. Retired Republican John Boehner laments that members now feel pressure to fight, fight, fight the other side.

“I couldn’t even play golf with the guy without looking like Public Enemy Number One,” Boehner writes in his book, On the House, which bemoans the rise of “far-right knuckleheads.”

So that’s the fundamental challenge Biden faces. Getting things done in the U.S. political system usually requires compromise between parties, and it’s rare these days.

Under the filibuster rule that requires 60 votes to pass most bills in the Senate, Biden would need 20 per cent of Republicans to vote with his party.

Pathways to end gridlock

And every strategic discussion in Washington involves how he might try to get around the fundamental reality of partisan gridlock. There are four basic paths. None is easy. But Biden’s party could try to:

— Weaken the Senate filibuster. It’s a constant topic of conversation in Washington. But it seems a longshot, opposed by some Democrats. At most, it might be tinkered with.

— Use budget reconciliation. That’s the legislative shortcut to pass financial bills by a simple majority vote. It’s how Democrats passed the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill. They could allocate spending on health care or green infrastructure. The catch? It’s temporary. Spending in reconciliation bills can’t be permanent. Another catch: some Senate Democrats say they oppose using reconciliation bills this way.

— Try negotiating with Republicans. That won’t be easy. After Biden’s speech, the response from Republican Sen. Tim Scott blasted his big-government approach as putting more government in Americans’ lives.

“From the cradle to college,” Scott said.

Some bipartisan talks are happening. In fact, Scott is personally involved in some: He and a few Democrats are hoping to get a police-reform deal into law by next month’s one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death. There are also bipartisan talks on infrastructure and immigration.

The hitch here is anything Republicans are willing to pass will fall short of Biden’s lofty ambitions.

— A hybrid approach. Think of it as a two-step: First, work out limited deals with Republicans, then use reconciliation to add elements.

Doing nothing not an option

For example, Republicans say they want to pass an infrastructure bill but aren’t keen on green spending. Under this approach, you might see a bipartisan bill to fix roads and bridges, then a budget bill that funds clean tech.

There are several possible paths ahead for Biden. None is simple. All require support from Sen. Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat from West Virginia who is adamant that he wants to try working with Republicans. (Chip Somodevilla/Reuters)

That’s risky too; different Democrats could balk at either the progressive or the moderate bill, and wind up tanking both.

One thing Biden is adamant about is his limited patience for dead-end negotiating. He said he welcomes ideas from opponents, but doing nothing is not an option.

A former Obama White House staffer said the president’s sense of urgency is partly a product of the political times, and partly of the hard-learned lessons from his time as vice-president.

The memoir of Barack Obama includes accounts of frustrating, fruitless efforts to win Republican votes for any type of health reform.

The landscape has changed a little bit,” said Dianna English, who served on Obama’s White House National Security Council and now lives in Canada. “I think the game has changed … in terms of the expectation of fair play across the aisle.”

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