Under a pose of guilelessness, Biden’s speech was in fact infused with political guile. The agenda he promoted to expand both free pre-school and community college, to subsidize the shift to a low-carbon economy, to fund a massive way of new public works construction by taxing the very wealthy, represented years of pent-up demand by progressives. But much of the money would be spent in ways designed to break up the Trump coalition, which was powered heavily by middle- and lower-middle class whites who do not have college degrees with contempt for many parts of the progressive agenda.
Referring to his infrastructure proposal, Biden argued: “Nearly 90 percent of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan do not require a college degree. Seventy-five percent don’t require an associate’s degree. The American Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America.”
The bet is that material gains—i.e. a recovery that produces lots of working class jobs and allows families to more easily educate their children—can trump the cultural grievances that sent many of these people into the conservative movement over the past two generations, beginning with George Wallace’s hardhat supporters and later becoming a flood of “Reagan Democrats.”
In fact there was a nod—was it subconscious, or were Biden and his speechwriters thinking of it explicitly?—to one of Reagan’s great arguments, made in 1981 when a 38-year-old Biden had already been in the Senate for eight years. At his first inaugural address, Reagan declared, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”
Speaking Wednesday to Congress, in which social distancing made the audience on the House floor a small fraction of its usual size for a presidential address, Biden explicitly rejected the conservative notion of government as an outside or hostile force, as distinct from average Americans. “Our Constitution opens with the words, ‘We the People.’ It’s time we remembered that ‘We the People’ are the government,” Biden implored. “You and I. Not some force in a distant capital. Not some powerful force we have no control over. It’s us. It’s ‘We the People.’”
The passage was a notable reminder of the arc of Biden’s career. For most of his half-century in government, Biden has been operating in a climate in which Democrats of his generally centrist ilk had to practice defensive politics. They knew that the union movement that had been the foundation of the old Democratic coalition was steadily weakening. They knew that decadeslong erosion of respect in government and nongovernment institutions had helped fuel a contempt-driven conservative movement. To support Democrats, many people needed constant reassurance that candidates weren’t brazenly or irresponsibly liberal.
The speech was another marker suggesting that the ideological pendulum may have finally swung again at the closing end of Biden’s half-century in Washington.
For his part, Biden believes people are ready to support aggressively activist government if the debate is taken out of the realm of symbolism and political abstraction and into the realm of concrete realities of people’s lives. He celebrated the success in soaring far past his goal of 100 million vaccination shots in the first 100 days, and called vaccine distribution in his term, “one of the greatest logistical achievements our country has ever seen.”