The sneaky radicalism of Joe Biden’s first few months in office
Joe Biden ran for president on a very simple idea: Government (and the country) works best when people from opposing parties work together. And he cast himself as someone who was uniquely suited to re-stoke the desire for bipartisanship in Congress (and the country).
Then, later in that same speech, Biden offered this:
“This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.”
Liberals openly worried that Biden’s slavish commitment to bipartisanship was a relic of a bygone era — and that attempts to find Republicans who would support his policies would not only fail, but also lessen the chances of pushing progressive priorities at a moment when Democrats control all levels of political power in Washington. That Biden’s incrementalism — as demonstrated during his decades in the Senate — was a uniquely bad fit for these dire times.
Worry no more!
* Biden unveiled a $2 trillion infrastructure plan late last month that be touted as a “once-in-a-generation investment in America, unlike anything we’ve seen or done since we built the Interstate Highway System and the Space Race decades ago.” As to so-far unified Republican opposition to the proposal, Biden forcefully indicated earlier this week that he was open to compromise but not to doing nothing. “Debate is welcome. Compromise is inevitable. Changes are certain,” Biden said, before adding: “Here’s what we won’t be open to: We will not be open to doing nothing. Inaction is simply not an option.”
* In late January, Biden proposed a sweeping plan aimed at reducing the US’s dependence on fossil fuels and addressing the looming climate crisis. “It’s not time for small measures,” Biden said in unveiling the plan.
* In February, Biden put out what CNN described as a “sweeping” immigration plan that included a pathway to citizenship for people in the country illegally.
* In announcing several executive orders on gun control on Thursday, Biden made a blunt call for broader measures by Congress. “They can do it right now,” he said. “They’ve offered plenty of thoughts and prayers, members of Congress, but they have passed not a single new federal law to reduce gun violence. Enough prayers, time for some action.”
So, what happened? How did a staid institutionalist — and self-professed pragmatic dealmaker — turn into a big-swinging progressive?
The answer, I think, lies in two places.
That searing experience showed Biden that the Republican Party that he had found to be a willing partner in days of yore was gone. And in its place was a party that believed total obstruction was a winning strategy.
The New York Times’ Ezra Klein made this point well in a recent opinion piece. Here’s the key bit:
“The long campaign against the ideological compromise that was the Affordable Care Act is central here, but so too was then-Speaker John Boehner’s inability to sell his members on the budget bargain he’d negotiated with President Barack Obama, followed by his refusal to allow so much as a vote in the House on the 2013 immigration bill. And it’s impossible to overstate the damage that Mitch McConnell’s stonewalling of Merrick Garland, followed by his swift action to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, did to the belief among Senate Democrats that McConnell was in any way, in any context, a good-faith actor. They gave up on him completely.
“The result is that Obama, Biden, the key political strategists who advise Biden and almost the entire Democratic congressional caucus simply stopped believing Republicans would ever vote for major Democratic bills.”
Add it up and you get this: A man in Biden who believes that the moment demands radical and bold change — whether or not Republicans are willing to come along for the ride.
Which isn’t the Joe Biden most people (including Democrats) likely thought they were getting. But it’s the Joe Biden we have — at least for now.