President Joe Biden swept into Pittsburgh last week to begin the next phase of his campaign to, as he puts it, “change the paradigm.”
Huh? The what?
The president is not just trying to cram his agenda into his first year or two in office, in case he loses the Congress like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did. He is trying to do something much bigger: He wants to turn the guiding precept of the federal government from Reaganism back to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.
The current paradigm is that government is not the solution, it is the problem. Those are Ronald Reagan’s own words, repeated many times over many years. This was his political philosophy in a bumper sticker phrase, his mantra.
Presidents Obama and Clinton accepted the paradigm just as Dwight Eisenhower accepted the Rooseveltian paradigm.
Ike did not, for example, attempt to roll back Social Security, as many hard-right Republicans hoped he would.
Clinton even declared, “The era of big government is over.”
Biden disagrees. He clearly thinks there is a central role for government, at least at this moment.
He and his economic advisers came up with an almost $2 trillion economic rescue program, and the president somehow got it through Congress and did so quickly.
Biden now proposes an additional $2 trillion infrastructure rebuilding, broadband expansion, research and development, and green retrofitting plan, to be paid out over eight years and paid for over 15.
Our leaders have been talking about an infrastructure rebuild since 1992. Donald Trump promised to do it and might have had he been less distracted. The country has not spent on infrastructure, substantially, since the 1950s.
Another proposed trillion in spending is coming in a few weeks — this on health care, child care and education.
Biden learned three lessons from being vice president during the Obama presidency, two of them political and one philosophical.
First, go big, not small. That’s how you brand and build a presidency. This is consistent with the Roosevelt and Reagan experiences. (This is also what the historians, whom Biden has consulted, are telling him.)
Second, don’t wait for Republicans in Congress to put your program together. Seek support from voters of the other party. Take your case directly to the people. This is FDR and Reagan, too. (Biden should continue to do town halls and he should copy FDR’s fireside chats.)
But the third lesson is the biggest surprise and gamble: The president is a born-again Rooseveltian. He wants to be a new FDR, or Lyndon Johnson, before the Vietnam War undid the Great Society. He wants to “save” the little guys like his late father, and be remembered for this.
The president believes the public sector can and should stimulate the economy; can create jobs; and can allocate resources.
He believes that if the wealth gap is way out of whack, government can, to some degree at least, correct this.
He believes that if today’s young are generationally poor as the old were in Roosevelt’s time, this can be addressed through transfer payments.
All this, and more, is what he means by changing the paradigm.
I am pretty sure this is not what most of us thought we were getting in a Biden presidency. I imagined someone more like Ike or Coolidge, which, personally, sounds pretty good.
But I also know that’s not the modern presidency.
A successful presidency, if such a thing is still possible at all, aims big.
So, while this is not what most people were expecting, it certainly is interesting.
And while doctrinaire free-market types will scream that this is madness, is it not possible that the American government, as it relates to the economy, should change with circumstance? In other words, one medicine is not right for all ailments and all circumstances. When you have a migraine, you do not call for chemotherapy. And when you have cancer, you need more than aspirin and hot tea.
Maybe there is a time for activism and a time for contraction.
If the Reagan argument could be boiled down to: Government is not the solution, it is the problem, the Roosevelt-Biden argument can also be boiled down. The mantra is as follows: If government cannot help ordinary people get through life during a Great Depression, or a pandemic, why do we have government?
We used to call this “positive government.” The notion is that sometimes, like saving the American auto industry, Uncle Sam needs to step in, because no other entity can or will do it. (Maybe Uncle Sam should have hung around and insisted that, in return for a bailout, U.S. auto industry jobs stay in the U.S.)
But can we afford all this? $5 trillion? Really?
I have my doubts. I am not sure state and local government can even absorb the rescue money intelligently.
But I won’t weep at higher taxes on corporations, especially on their foreign profits, which is how the president proposes to pay for most of the infrastructure plan. I’d wager most Americans will also be OK with this.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen seems to think the risk in all this spending is minimal because money is cheap right now. Interest rates and inflation are both low.
And Trump’s deficit spending and tax cut for the rich already blew up the debt and GOP fiscal credibility.
But let’s face it, Joe is not FDR. Nobody is. Nobody could be in the politics of today.
But Biden is liked, a huge asset. And here is a profound irony: Obama governed as a moderate but ran as, and was somehow seen as, radical. (His mantra was, “better is still better.”) Biden intends to govern as a profound change agent, but ran, and is seen as, the opposite of radical — an old shoe.
I do think this: The key to FDR’s success was not program but faith and optimism, and, secondly, innovation. If Biden stays upbeat and flexible, keeps talking directly to the people, and sticks to economic and not cultural issues, he may avoid the midterm humbling that turned Presidents Clinton and Obama into regents.
For here is something that is entirely possible: that the paradigm has already been changed, by history and circumstance. COVID-19 may have changed the paradigm before Joe Biden took office.
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