The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden is going big, and momentum is on his side

President Biden addresses a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The main message from President Biden on Wednesday to a joint session of Congress — made eerily skeletal by covid-19 concerns — was that although we’ve spent unprecedented trillions over the past year, trillions more will be needed if he’s going to check off all the items on his wish list.

After quickly fist-bumping down the socially distanced aisle, Biden soon established his big theme: “America is on the move again.” He boasted about his 100 days of accomplishments, and launched into a defense of his “consequential” American Rescue Plan. He offered up anecdotes about how far we’ve come in the covid fight, and then grew passionate about his American Jobs Plan, which he described as the largest such effort since World War II.

The whole speech pushed in one direction. He neatly tied the climate change issue into a way to create “jobs, jobs, jobs.” He gestured at bipartisanship by commending Republicans for coming up with their own jobs plan, only to warn that “the rest of the world is not waiting for us. … Doing nothing is not an option.” Biden’s bipartisanship clearly has its limits. He said that he would only raise taxes on the rich — a claim that will be closely monitored.

And he ticked off a laundry list of other proposals, including the obligatory nod to gun control that he knows will go nowhere. After more than an hour, he wrapped up with lofty rhetoric, saying, “There is not a single thing, nothing — nothing — beyond our capacity. We can do whatever we set our minds to do, if we do it together.”

Candidate Biden campaigned as a middle-of-the-road, unifying pragmatist, but President Biden has been such a free-spending, tree-hugging, southern-border-erasing progressive that even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has had to stop to catch her breath.

“I do think that the Biden administration and President Biden have exceeded expectations that progressives had,” Ocasio-Cortez said with glowing admiration last week in what qualifies as the understatement of the year. “I’ll be frank, I think a lot of us expected a lot more conservative administration.” Let’s all be frank — so did everyone else.

At some point after he was declared the winner of the 2020 election, Biden must have considered history remembering him as a dependable caretaker content to heal the nation with somber, unifying outreaches and actions on the heels of the norms-busting, psyche-rattling bulldozer that was Donald Trump.

But Biden has clearly had an epiphany that it had been at least six decades since the country had a full-blown liberal spending spree, and, hey, didn’t it deserve to party after surviving four years of Trump? Most prognosticators are forecasting bad times for Democrats in 2022, so if you’re going down, why not go down after the biggest progressive splurge in history?

And so, Biden grabbed the national credit cards, ordered the limits obliterated and started calling all his friends, urging them to add their items to the cart ASAP — because checkout will happen as soon as there are 50 votes (plus Vice President Harris’s tiebreaker) in the Senate, which shouldn’t take longer than a few promises of future favors to Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

Conservatives in Congress will pay Reaganesque lip service to worries about the debt and deficit, but they lost their credibility on spending after they partied on with Trump. The United States turned the corner into socialist-style waters when “trillions” became an acceptable term for a single spending package last year, and again this year, and now Biden wants at least two more with the T-word attached.

On Wednesday, Biden made several poignant remarks about social justice, this moment in history and our American ideals. “We have to come together to heal the soul of this nation,” he said.

But what will live in history was Biden’s call for spending at a level that would make the New Deal and Great Society seem like examples of fiscal restraint. Whether you’re on the left or right, Biden’s boldness — his sheer audacity — is politically admirable.

There are those who believe the covid-19 pandemic was politicized by the left, with many unnecessary restrictions, shutdowns and job losses, to justify the kind of government-to-the-rescue response Biden is now preaching. Whether that’s correct no longer matters. Biden is embracing the opportunity, shunting aside a career-long reputation as a moderate pragmatist and surrendering to the kind of old-school liberalism that promotes big government as the solution, not the problem. Attaching it all to covid recovery is becoming more unnecessary by the day as grass-roots Americans — both Democrats and Republicans — merrily welcome the government largesse.

Progressives such as AOC originally feared that Biden wouldn’t go big enough. After Wednesday, their doubts should be erased. Biden is going big, and momentum is on his side.

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Transcript: Real-time commentary on Biden’s address to Congress

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Biden's speech was bipartisan and partisan at the same time

Jennifer Rubin: Biden’s address to Congress proves we have an adult back in the presidency

Ann Telnaes: Madam Vice President and Madam Speaker