On The Trail: Biden makes his ambitions clear 

The most conventional president in recent history used his first address to a joint session of Congress to propose an agenda that he compared to the most ambitious projects and programs ever undertaken by the American government.

In an address notable for its solemnity, bereft of much of the pomp and circumstance of a traditional speech to a packed chamber, Biden laid out a vision for an activist role for government comparable to the New Deal and the Great Society.

“Throughout our history, if you think about it, public investment and infrastructure has literally transformed America — our attitudes, as well as our opportunities,” Biden said Wednesday. “The transcontinental railroad, the interstate highways united two oceans and brought a totally new age of progress to the United States of America.”


“Scientific breakthroughs took us to the Moon. Now we're on Mars, discovering vaccines, gave us the Internet and so much more,” he said. “These are the investments we made together as one country, and investments that only the government was in a position to make. Time and again, they propel us into the future.”

Few would compare President BidenJoe BidenBiden says Beau's assessment of first 100 days would be 'Be who you are' Biden: McCarthy's support of Cheney ouster is 'above my pay grade' Conservative group sues over prioritization of women, minorities for restaurant aid MORE’s oratory favorably with most of his predecessors, and even Biden supporters use words like “boring” to describe his public-facing approach to the presidency.

But on Wednesday, Biden demonstrated aspirations to wholly reorient American government. After 40 years of austerity and retrenchment, the 78 year old whom progressives feared was a second coming of the New Democratic Coalition of the Clinton years instead proposed trillions in new spending and new programs that would revive the government’s role in domestic life.

Recent presidents have compared themselves to their immediate predecessors, both as a measuring stick and as a contrast. George W. Bush pledged to restore morality to the White House after the scandals of the Clinton years. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTop Democrat buys Funny Or Die Michelle Obama describes Barack's favorite movies: 'Everybody is sad, then they die' Obama calls on governments to 'do their part' in increasing global vaccine supply MORE ran for and won the presidency on an anti-war platform. Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWarren says Republican party 'eating itself and it is discovering that the meal is poisonous' More than 75 Asian, LGBTQ groups oppose anti-Asian crime bill McConnell says he's 'great admirer' of Liz Cheney but mum on her removal MORE cast himself as the diametric opposite of Obama, bent on reversing every possible aspect of his rival’s record.

But Biden is the first president in 28 years to come to office with a substantial résumé of federal government experience, and the first Democrat to take office after a long career in Washington since Lyndon Johnson in 1963. His address on Wednesday fashioned his agenda in terms that reached back to Johnson and beyond.


If other presidents came to office committed to changing Washington, Biden has come to change the focus of government itself.

The $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package Biden has already signed into law led to a steep drop in childhood poverty. A proposed $1.8 trillion package of spending aimed at families would expand government assistance for families with children at virtually every step of their lives, from child care through higher education.

A $2 trillion infrastructure proposal would make first-of-its-kind investments in electric vehicles at a time when auto manufacturers are preparing to shift production lines; pandemic preparation at a moment when the world is only beginning to wrestle the coronavirus under control; and an advanced research program housed within the National Institutes of Health.

Biden’s recent predecessors have described the learning curve that comes with taking control of the levers of a behemoth federal government. Biden, after 36 years in the United States Senate and eight in the vice president’s office, faces no such learning curve.

The absence of a learning curve also means Biden knows what he faces in the opposition from today’s Republican Party. He does not enjoy the massive Democratic majorities that ushered in Roosevelt’s New Deal or Johnson’s Great Society. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden says Beau's assessment of first 100 days would be 'Be who you are' McConnell says he's 'great admirer' of Liz Cheney but mum on her removal McConnell: 'Good chance' of deal with Biden on infrastructure MORE (Ky.) castigated Biden’s first 100 days as littered with “catnip” for the Democratic base.


But none of the archetypes in the lofty pantheon into which Biden has cast his own agenda came easily or quickly.

The measure authorizing construction of the transcontinental railroad only passed Congress after its opponents left Congress when their home states seceded from the Union. The interstate highway system wasn’t completed until 32 years after the man who signed its authorization into law, Dwight Eisenhower, left office. The first Americans landed on the moon six years after the assassination of the man who promised to send them there.

But Biden sought to frame his agenda in the same terms of national unity that brought those projects to pass.

“From my perspective, doing nothing is not an option,” Biden said. “We can’t be so busy competing with one another that we forget the competition that we have with the rest of the world to win the 21st Century.”

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson.