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Can Joe Biden Restore America’s Belief That Government Is Good for People? 


President Joe Biden arrived in office with the kind of coherent, ambitious plan that Americans may almost have forgotten was possible. On Thursday, he issued the “National Strategy for the Covid-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness,” which embraces a set of priorities that includes better data collection and analysis, building more testing capacity, and sending a directive to the Occupational Safety and Health Agency to produce and enforce standards protecting workers from the virus. By the end of the week, he had signed thirty executive orders, which began the work of dismantling policies that Donald Trump had instituted in the service of his ego and his base. Biden’s orders bring the United States back into the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization, end construction on the border wall, rescind the travel ban that targeted mostly Muslim countries, and disband the 1776 Commission, a last-ditch attempt to get historians to stop talking so much about the realities of slavery and racism. He also asked the Department of Education to extend through September a moratorium on the repayment of student loans and loan interest, and requested that federal agencies hold off on evictions and foreclosures until the end of March.

Illustration by João Fazenda

Despite the gravity of the challenges ahead, Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris are setting out with some distinct advantages. They won the election by more than seven million votes, amassing more ballots than any Presidential ticket in U.S. history, and, thanks to Georgia, they have slim Democratic majorities in both the Senate and the House. Perhaps most critically, they have faith in the capacity of government to help people. Biden, by temperament and by experience—a very long career in public service which includes championing the Affordable Care Act, the most comprehensive health-care reform in decades—is well suited to trying to restore that faith for the rest of America.

He does face some formidable obstacles. For all that Trump tried to trash America’s democratic governance, his fellow-Republicans had been doing damage to the idea of government itself long before he became their standard-bearer. The extreme belief in small government that so many in the G.O.P. have espoused since the Reagan Administration, and particularly since the rise of the Tea Party, makes them more radical than most of their conservative and even far-right counterparts in Western Europe and Canada. They helped create a climate in which scorn for the purpose and the efficacy of government dashed many Americans’ expectations that it could do much for them. That attitude got a big assist from Republicans in the Senate who have successfully wielded the filibuster—the mechanism that requires a super-majority of sixty senators to move a bill to a vote—to block progressive legislation and prevent even the discussion of, for example, a public option for health care.

For these reasons and more, Biden is going to have a hard time enacting his legislative agenda. Yet it’s crucial that he do so—not only for the practical good it would do for the whole country but because it might win over at least some of those currently alienated from the Democratic Party. It will be an invigorating start if he can get his COVID-19 relief plan through Congress—a proposal that would provide up to fourteen hundred dollars directly to households, increase funds for vaccine distribution and child care, and raise the federally guaranteed minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour. It would require a two-thirds vote to get rid of the filibuster altogether, so Biden will likely have to work around it. But he can take advantage of budget reconciliation, a process by which, in certain circumstances, Congress can pass special budgets by a simple majority. (It worked, in 2010, to nail down some of the budget for Obamacare.)

The fact is that, in a harsh capitalist economy with a weak labor movement, where so many are vulnerable to the vagaries of gig work, rising housing costs, unpredictable medical bills, and punishing student debt, people need help from the government. And, when they actually get it, they tend, not surprisingly, to like it. According to a Pew Research Center survey from April, eighty-nine per cent of Americans—equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans—think the two-trillion-dollar Covid-19 relief package that Congress passed last March was appropriate, and seventy-seven per cent think that more relief is needed.

Similarly, though congressional Republicans have repeatedly tried to repeal the A.C.A., and Republican attorneys general have mounted successive legal challenges to it, the law’s protections, especially those guarding against the denial of insurance on the basis of preëxisting conditions, are more popular than ever. About fifty per cent of Americans hold a favorable view of the A.C.A., according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, and seventy-nine per cent want to retain the preëxisting-conditions provision. In 2017, Guy Molyneux, a pollster conducting surveys for the Center for American Progress, found attitudes toward the role of government that should be encouraging to Biden. “Non-college whites believe government has let them down,” Molyneux wrote in The American Prospect, “but most have no principled or ideological objections to government playing a strong role in the economy. Although just 20 percent trust the federal government, 50 percent also say that it should take a more active role in solving the nation’s economic and social problems.”

But, with congressional Republicans still stoking fears of socialism and the “deep state,” it will take persistent eloquence and empathy from the explainer-in-chief to make the case for government’s role. Biden is sometimes compared with Franklin Roosevelt. Both inherited a profound and confounding national crisis and promoted a belief that government can assuage it. Both men’s fundamental optimism seems compassionate rather than naïve, perhaps as a result of their having endured personal sorrows themselves (Roosevelt’s affliction with polio; Biden’s loss of his first wife and two of his children). “The admirable trait in Roosevelt is that he has the guts to try,” the Republican senator Hiram Johnson said, with grudging admiration, adding that “he does it all with the rarest good nature.”

By talking honestly about the difficulties the country faces but confidently about what government can accomplish, Biden may be able to do the same. “It’s going to take months to turn things around,” he said last week. In a few weeks’ time, he predicted, half a million Americans will have died of covid. But, the President added, “to a nation waiting for action, let me be clearest on this point: help is on the way.” ♦



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