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Opinion Why Republicans can’t convince America that Biden is a radical

Former president Barack Obama joins then-presidential candidate Joe Biden on the campaign trail. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

The first 100 days of Joe Biden’s presidency have surprised both liberals and conservatives with how ambitious they have been, and in his first address to Congress, he’ll lay out a plan to enhance the safety net that advocates are describing as “groundbreaking” and “transformative.”

In response, Republican politicians and media figures are crying that Biden is a dangerous radical who wants to turn the country into something unrecognizable. “America, you elected Bernie Sanders, you just didn’t know it,” said Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade on Wednesday.

Yet as a recent NBC News poll shows, Americans still think Biden is a moderate, especially when compared with his predecessor Barack Obama:

In April 2009, the NBC poll found that 59 percent of registered voters saw Obama as “very” or “somewhat” liberal, while 30 percent saw him as moderate. A new NBC poll released Sunday finds that 44 percent see Biden as “very” or “somewhat” liberal, while 42 percent see him as “moderate.”

That’s despite the fact that, by any reasonable measure, Biden has been far more liberal than Obama ever dared (or wanted) to be.

He pushed through a pandemic relief bill more than twice as large as the stimulus bill Obama signed to confront the Great Recession. He has an ambitious two-part infrastructure initiative that would not only repair roads, bridges and water systems but would also make an unprecedented investment in child care, pre-K and paid family leave, while raising taxes on the wealthy.

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Biden’s health-care plans go far beyond the Affordable Care Act. He has put more emphasis on combating climate change than Obama ever did. His appointments are even more diverse than Obama’s were.

So how is it possible that Biden is still considered a moderate?

There are a lot of reasons, but the most important is that as far as the public is concerned — a public that usually pays only fleeting attention to politics — who a politician is and what he does are two separate things.

The contrast with Obama — who in 2008 was the living embodiment of social and political change — is instructive. When he came on the scene he was young, Black, cosmopolitan, hip and the hero of young people across the country, running in the primary and then in the general election against candidates deeply embedded in the establishment.

Biden, on the other hand, is and has always been the establishment. Though he has been around for decades, even through his time as vice president most Americans probably had only vague impressions of him. He was a folksy guy with a bottomless supply of bromides supposedly handed down from his parents who never stopped talking about the blueness of his collar. He combined a White-guy blandness with the lack of an ideological profile; his ideology was always whatever Democrats agree on right now. He had beliefs but not an agenda.

Then came the 2020 primaries, when Democrats had a knock-down, drag-out fight to determine what the party would be. The more liberal candidates made a case that included lots of criticism of Biden for being too moderate and timid — and they lost the argument. Primary voters decided that Biden was the right choice. However you thought about that outcome at the time, it cemented the idea that Biden is a moderate within the party.

It’s also important to note that while Biden may have been aggressive on policy so far, his initial agenda has been calibrated to garner the widest support possible. Republicans in Congress may hate much of what he has done so far — for instance, a significant expansion of the child tax credit that he now wants to make permanent — but their constituents don’t.

And while the audience for Fox News and conservative talk radio gets a daily instruction in the supposed horrors of the left — a college professor who tweeted something inappropriate, an activist who used a shocking slogan, the excesses of “wokeness” — none of that attaches to Biden.

In fact, he has always been defined in opposition to the left — unlike them in identity and style, often criticized by them, constantly negotiating with them over how far he’ll go. All of which makes it hard for Republicans to say that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Black Lives Matter are destroying the country, then in the next breath say that they and Biden are one and the same.

There will be more divisive battles to come; for instance, Biden hasn’t yet moved on his promise to create a public health-care option. It’s far too early to know what the political implications of Biden’s image will be over the long run — though let’s not forget that even though more Americans saw Obama as liberal, he won two elections handily.

But it is at least possible that when policy battles occur, Biden’s moderate image will give him the space to advocate more liberal ideas and still prevail, while Republicans struggle to convince voters that his proposals are extreme and dangerous. As one Republican lawmaker conceded, “it’s hard to hit someone who reminds you of your grandpa.”

If that leaves the GOP arguing that it’s a terrible idea to raise taxes on the wealthy, we shouldn’t do anything about climate change, workers don’t deserve better treatment, the health-care system can’t be improved, and the government should generally just stop trying to help people, then Biden will be in pretty good shape.

Read more:

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