President Joe Biden gave his first speech to a joint session of Congress this week and by most accounts, it was a successful event. The TV ratings weren't high but according to snap polls, those that did watch liked what he had to say and the media were complimentary about his delivery and presentation — which is half the battle.
Biden introduced a new piece of legislation called the American Family Act which features items such as paid family leave, universal daycare and preschool, free community college, elder care, and a number of other initiatives that other developed countries have had for years but which Americans have been staring at longingly from afar. It's obvious that if we want a 21st Century economy, we're going to have to at least catch up to what other countries have been doing since the middle of the 20th.
His initiative comes on the heels of the previously announced American Jobs Act (aka Biden's infrastructure plan) and the already passed American Rescue Plan Act, as well as his administration's very successful vaccine roll-out. Considering that Biden had virtually no transition and came into office on the heels of an insurrection and in the middle of a global pandemic, that's not a bad first 100 days.
But the hard work is really just beginning.
The government has responded well to the pandemic crisis, which is a refreshing change from the previous administration. And the big COVID relief package has given the economy the boost it needed to recover (and it is recovering smartly). But Biden's platform is much more ambitious. Taking office at a time of great turmoil in the country after years of unnecessary wars, economic and social stagnation, as well as pent-up demand for racial justice, he and the Democrats have decided to try to enact a truly transformative agenda.
Of course, that is a very tall order. As we are all well aware, the Democrats have a very narrow majority in the upper chamber and there are a few senators who seem to be determined to pare down these ambitious goals in the name of "bipartisanship" and "fiscal responsibility." If that sounds familiar, it should. Centrist Democrats have been wringing their hands over deficits and taxes for the past 40 years, a form of inherited political PTSD from the Reagan Revolution. But there are fewer of them than there used to be and it's always possible that after much cajoling, sweet-talk and flattery, party leaders will find a way to corral them into going with the program without watering it down to nothing but a puddle of lukewarm water.
And then there is the GOP.
One of the reasons the first hundred days are often able to produce some big achievements is that the other party is usually back on its heels. There's a period of confusion about what went wrong, a jockeying for power, and indecision about how best to deal with the new majority. It takes a while to settle down and decide on a strategy. And in this case, all of that is magnified by the fact that Donald Trump refused to concede the election and his followers staged a violent insurrection to stop the peaceful transfer of power and the whole ordeal still looms over the party like a big nuclear cloud.
The stories about pilgrimages to Mar-a-Lago, Twitter selfies of House leaders groveling for forgiveness after suggesting that Trump's behavior on January 6th was irresponsible and the dispensing of phony "awards" to make him feel valued, all expose the ongoing illness at the heart of the party. Despite some attempts by Never Trumpers and some obvious positioning by ambitious politicians looking for an opening, the base of the party is still under the control of Donald J. Trump and that means everything is still really all about him.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that Republican dogma was pretty much discredited even before Trump came on the scene. He drop-kicked most of it into oblivion with his incoherent program of libertine values, trade wars, tax cuts, deficits and wall building. He had a hold on the voters the Republican establishment couldn't bear to cross so even aside from enabling his disgusting personal behavior, they gave up any claim to ideological credibility. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can wax on about the Democrats' "court-packing" or attempting to usurp the sacred process of the Senate but it will just elicit laughter.
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina tried to revert to the pre-Trump talking points in his rebuttal to President Biden on Wednesday night and it sounded downright bizarre, as if we were listening to a scratchy, old recording of some radio speech in the 1930s. He complained about the American Families Plan being "even more taxing, even more spending, to put Washington even more in the middle of your life — from the cradle to college" and called the infrastructure plan a "partisan wish list."
Yawn. After the Trump spending spree they all gleefully signed on to, those tired old saws have no credibility at all. Times have changed. Last Sunday's NBC News poll showed that 55 percent of Americans thought the government should focus on doing more to help people, while just 41 percent said it was already trying to do too many things. As the NY Times pointed out, "in the 1990s, it was the other way around; during the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies, NBC polls usually found the country more evenly split."
Still, Scott denounced Biden for dividing the country, disingenuously blaming him for the fact that Republicans unanimously refused to vote for his COVID relief bill when Democrats all voted for Trump's. He unctuously declared "COVID brought Congress together five times; this administration pushed us apart," giving Tucker Carlson a run for his money for the troll of the year award. But it was his Trumpian flourish on the issue of race that shows that the culture war is really all Republicans have left. Scott pulled out the "reverse racism" card, virtually guaranteed to make the Trump followers squeal with delight to see a Black politician defend their point of view.
The Republicans cannot credibly oppose Biden's agenda. Their arguments about debt and tax cuts have been refuted, their ideas about radical individualism have been shredded by our experience with the pandemic, their claims to moral authority in the wake of Trump are simply laughable. All they have is power and they will wield it mercilessly. But they have no way to explain it to the broader American public that makes any sense.
The only question, then, is whether or not that makes any sense to the centrist Democrats like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin or the two senators from Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly. Sadly, there is a fair chance that other than the hardcore Trumpers who will believe anything they're told, these Democratic senators will be the only people in America to whom it does. They must be persuaded that now is the time, while the Republicans are ideologically spent and the economy is set to blast off, to do something real and meaningful for the American people.
These occasions don't come very often. It would be a crime if the Democrats let this chance slip from their grasp.