So Much For a Transitional Presidency
What caretaker presidency?
If you thought President Joe Biden was going to be content whiling away his four years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, serving, as he once described himself, as a "transition[al]" candidate and president, then the last few weeks should put that misconception to rest.
Even if he stopped at the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act, the most sweeping piece of anti-poverty and economic stimulus legislation in a decade or more, the 46th president's legacy would be assured. But with the rollout of a two-pronged, $2 trillion infrastructure program that is cinematic in its scope and far-reaching in its ambition, it's clear that Biden has an eye on the history books.
And that shouldn't be a surprise either. As CNN reported earlier this week, Biden has positioned a portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt across from the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, which means the father of The New Deal is staring across the room at him during his working day.
Now comes the task of selling it the American people and to a Congress, where Biden will encounter skepticism from progressives who do not consider it ambitious enough, and from Republicans who have mysteriously woken up from four years of deficit spending under the previous administration, and found their inner fiscal conservative.
During a stop at a union hall in Pittsburgh on Wednesday where he unveiled the plan, Biden set exactly the right tone, positioning his infrastructure proposal as a "once in a generation" opportunity to remake the face of the nation by not only funding such typical infrastructure projects such as rebuilding roads, but also advancing the country’s transition to a clean energy future by expanding the number of electric vehicle charging stations, and by combating climate change.
He argued, persuasively, that the nation was being presented with an opportunity that rivaled the construction of the interstate highway system, under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the dawning of the space race, under Democratic President John F. Kennedy.
The question now is whether the nation believes in itself enough to follow this transformational moment to its logical conclusion. I'd argue that, despite some hefty challenges, it is still very much possible.
As a nation, we like to think we're exceptional, pointing to advancements in science and healthcare; to such towering, man made achievements as the Hoover Dam and other edifices constructed with the sweat and toil of human hands and the bright spark of American ingenuity. Our civic high church, the National Mall, pays tribute, up and down its length, to our fellow citizens who have given the full measure of devotion.
After four years of a self-interested chief executive who appealed to the smallest and meanest things in us, and the trauma of a pandemic that has so far claimed more than a half-million American lives, we might think that we're afraid to dream so big ever again.