The Memo: Biden bets ‘big government’ is back

When President Biden delivers a joint address to Congress on Wednesday evening, he won’t just be advocating specific policies. He’ll be making the case that Americans want bigger government.

The Biden bet is that the public has warmed to the idea of a more interventionist government — partly because of the crisis foisted on the nation by COVID-19, but also because people are hungry for solutions to longer-term problems, from student debt and income inequality to racial justice and climate change.

There is some polling that backs up Biden’s case. The president is himself riding high in the polls, especially in relation to his handling of the pandemic.

But Americans have historically been much more resistant to activist government than their counterparts in Western Europe. The concepts of rugged individualism and personal responsibility are deeply embedded here, in contrast to the European emphasis on social cohesion and a stronger safety net.

A generation ago, then-President Clinton seemed to endorse a new, market-friendly orthodoxy as he embraced financial deregulation and limits on welfare benefits. 

“The era of big government is over,” Clinton famously declared in his 1996 State of the Union address.

As a senator, Biden would have been in the audience that night. Now, as president, Biden is singing a different tune — one that he hopes is more harmonious with the moment.

The signature legislative achievement of Biden’s first 100 days was his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. He has also pushed an initial $2.3 trillion infrastructure program, dealing mainly with traditional measures like roads and bridges, as well as vastly increased spending on green causes.

On Wednesday, Biden is expected to make the case for another deluge of spending, this time on social infrastructure. Tuition-free community college, paid leave and national child care are thought to be among his priorities. The proposal would be paid for primarily through increased taxes on high earners.

Republicans have blasted away at all these programs, arguing that they include measures that are unrelated to the problems the nation is facing. The GOP contends each proposal is a Trojan horse, being used to sneak Democratic priorities into legislation while the public is absorbed with the pandemic.

But Biden thinks the political danger lies in doing too little, not too much. 

An often-cited salutary example is the stimulus package then-President Obama pushed through early in his first term, as the nation battled the financial crisis. In retrospect, many liberals believe Obama shrank that measure too much, in search of bipartisan support that proved negligible.

Democratic strategist Paul Maslin argued that the three major tasks facing Biden were beating back the pandemic, calming public fears about its long-term impact and ameliorating its negative economic effects.

“The government’s role is a big part in all three of those things, and I think generally he has public support,” Maslin said.

An NBC News poll released Sunday seemed to reinforce the liberal case. Asked to choose between two statements — “government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people” or “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals” — 55 percent adhered to the first view, with only 41 percent favoring the second.

In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday, Biden won the approval of 52 percent of adults for his job performance overall, and from 64 percent for his handling of the pandemic.

The Post poll did show 53 percent of Americans expressing some level of concern that Biden would do too much to increase the size of government, however. 

That finding may be a warning that progressives should not get too excited. When the size and reach of government becomes an issue, public resistance to higher taxes is never far behind.

A Fox News poll, also released Sunday, asked respondents whether they would prefer to “pay higher taxes to support a larger government that provides more services” or “pay lower taxes and have a smaller government that provides fewer services.”

Phrased that way, the small-government side won a decisive victory, 56 percent to 36 percent.

GOP strategist Whit Ayres said that Democrats would suffer if they mistook a change in public attitudes specific to the pandemic for a bigger philosophical shift.

“We need to keep the highly unusual nature of a worldwide pandemic in mind when we talk about the role of government,” Ayres said. 

Ayres also recalled how both Clinton and Obama saw their Democratic colleagues in Congress suffer sweeping defeats in their first midterm elections.

“We have a history in this country of a party getting complete control — the White House, Senate and House — and immediately overreaching, thereby creating its own backlash, which puts the other party in power only two years later,” he said. 

For Biden, for now, it is full-steam ahead. The president has been in Washington for decades — long enough to know that his best chance of racking up major achievements is early in his term.

The president also has one, somewhat ironic advantage. 

His long-established image as a centrist makes it tough for conservative critics to recast him as a radical. 

“You can paint Bernie Sanders as a radical and a socialist, but it’s much harder to do that with Biden,” said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University. “It’s like Nixon going to China. Surely Richard Nixon isn’t appeasing the communists and surely that guy they labeled ‘Sleepy Joe Biden’ isn’t a wild-eyed radical!”

But Lichtman stressed that the expansiveness of Biden’s opening months in power should not be underestimated.

“The expectation for Biden was that this was an elderly guy who had been in government forever, and wouldn’t do anything too bold and dramatic,” he said.

“The opposite turns out to be true. It has been an amazingly ambitious first 100 days — quite contrary to the conventional wisdom.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags 2022 midterm elections Bernie Sanders Child care Infrastructure Joe Biden taxes

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