An America Neglected Coming from Behind

Joseph R. Biden Jr. shows himself to be the right president “we the people” need at the right time, trying to usher in a new dawn for America as he seeks to help a long-neglected middle and working class emerging from one of the country’s darkest hours.

Biden, in a contrast of behavior between him and his predecessor as stark as day and night, rapidly got the COVID-19 vaccine into the arms of Americans while proposing a series of programs from rescue to infrastructure-jobs to families totaling $6 trillion. He insisted in a 65-minute speech on the eve of his 100th day in office, “We can do this together.”

But togetherness depends on cooperation from Senate Republicans. Their view of infrastructure, for example, harks back 50 years.

They are adamantly against spending so much money and raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy to pay for programs they have denounced as a wish list by a “radical socialist,” especially after the approval of $4 trillion in pandemic relief packages. Not one Republican voted for Biden’s $1.9 trillion virus relief bundle March 11.

Yet they had no problem when the national debt increased by nearly $7.8 trillion during Donald Trump’s time in office, according to Propublica, which quoted the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That figure is nearly twice what Americans owe in all kinds of debt other than mortgages, or $23,500 in new federal debt for every person in the country, Propublica said. How’s that for a Republican Trumpian legacy.

So who are the radicals? But minus a blowhard, the White House is now so quiet you can hear a policy paper drop into an in-basket.

Biden may not have spoken with the eloquence of John F. Kennedy when the early 1960s president urged us to “ask what you can do for your country.” Rather, Biden told us his programs represent “what your country can do for you.” It follows four years of chaos that nearly doomed us.

“We have stared into the abyss of insurrection and autocracy – of pandemic and pain – and ‘we the people’ did not flinch,” Biden said in his speech to about 200 members of Congress and others in the House chamber.

Biden’s unexpected shift leftward and his embrace of progressive ideas, including improving health care availability, free child care, a college education and preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds so mothers can go to work, shows what big government can do for the people after decades of neglect. He is channeling Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt.

“We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works and we can deliver for our people,” Biden said, aiming at China, America’s chief competitor.

If it cannot be proved, said Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart on the PBS NewsHour Friday, “we’re going to lose the future to China.”

Biden has made a 180 degree turn away from, conservative President Ronald Reagan’s false “morning in America,” when he followed the “trickle down” theory of economist Milton Friedman, twice cut taxes and increased the national debt from $738 billion to $2.1 trillion.

Morning dawned instead for the defense industry, which he anointed with a $181 billion supplemental budget within months of taking office in 1981.

A sweeping disaster such as the pandemic, which has killed 576,000 Americans, calls for sweeping changes in the way things have been done for decades. Biden knows he has the power to exercise the presidential responsibility he obviously takes seriously to make life better for the average American. And he uses it generously.

There are faint signs of the Democrats’ willingness to compromise on the $2.3 trillion infrastructure-jobs program, unlike their insistence on getting the COVID-19 relief package into law rapidly because of its urgency, The Washington Post reported Saturday. The Democrats may break their proposal into chunks to make it more palatable to Republicans, it said.

“We have a little more time for the consideration of this . . . to have a broader consultation and dialogue,” the paper quoted top White House aide Steve Ricchetti. “There’s more receptivity on the Republican side to having that dialogue, and they also see the potential to reach some common ground here.”

This may be more hope than reality.

“The scope of the crises that we’re living through has kind of refocused the country on the ways in which we failed each other over a long period of time and how close to the edge that has brought us,” The New York Times quoted Cecilia Muñoz. A senior adviser at New America, a policy group in Washington, she was Obama’s director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

“We’ve learned a lot from this crisis, which has helped the country get more serious about the things we need to fix,” she said.

Biden may be the right man for the times and may capture the approval of the majority of Americans. But can he persuade the political opposition that it’s their time, too, to stand up for “we the people?”

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.