“Well, finally: Infrastructure Week,” Biden joked. “I’m so happy to say that: Infrastructure Week.” No doubt. He could finally put an end to the process stories and show how an experienced negotiator who promised a degree of bipartisanship could deliver.
Biden touted “once-in-a-generation investment that’s going to create millions of jobs modernizing our infrastructure — our roads, our bridges, our broadband, a whole range of things — to turn the climate crisis into an opportunity.” He hammered home his jobs message (aided by Friday’s rosy jobs report) and underscored that his agenda “puts us on a path to win the economic competition of the 21st century that we face with China and other large countries and the rest of the world.”
After weeks of frustrating negotiations over the climate provisions in the reconciliation package, he took the opportunity to stress the environmental-friendly aspects of his infrastructure initiative. “It’s going to make significant, historic strides to take on the climate crisis,” he said, adding: “It also makes historic investments in environmental cleanup and remediation. It builds up our … resilience against superstorms and droughts and wildfires, hurricanes.”
This was the Biden from the 2020 campaign, stressing that he was fighting for the little guy (“all of you at home who feel left behind and forgotten in an economy that’s changing so rapidly”). And this was the voice of the candidate who knew with confidence and clarity how to speak to the electorate. “The American people have made clear one overwhelming thing, I think — and I really mean it — all the talk about the elections and what do they mean and everything: They want us to deliver. They want us to deliver. Democrats, they want us to deliver.”
If a message of economic populism had been subsumed by inside-baseball coverage of endless negotiations, Biden wanted to remind the public which people he’s determined to help:
Hard-working middle-class folks are the ones that built this country. They’re the ones that built — the middle class — they’re the ones that built the backbone of the country.And what I decided to do was I said we have to begin to build an economy from the bottom up and the middle out. Well, folks, that hadn’t been the case. I’m so tired about trickle-down economic theory that I’m trickled out. ... The Build Back Better bill, which we’re going to be working on now, and this bill are all designed to give ordinary people a fighting chance to begin to sort of level the playing field just a little bit, not punish anybody.
Democrats up for reelection in 2022 surely were taking notes. Their survival in a historically treacherous environment for the party in power is going to depend on continued good economic news and voters’ recognition that only one party is on the side of most Americans (while the other strains to protect the richest and the biggest corporations from paying any taxes).
Biden could enjoy an I-told-you-so moment on his determined approach to pass a bipartisan bill. “I’ve been doing this thing my whole life. I’ve been able, in the Senate, to put things together when people said they couldn’t be put together just by making the overwhelming point that — that you can’t have all you want,” he explained. “It’s a process. There’s no one piece of legislation that’s going to solve everybody’s problems.”
That remark seemed to be directed not only at the press corps that had regularly pronounced his negotiations on life support, but also to factions in his own party who were not going to get perfect legislation to sell back home.
“Let’s be reasonable,” he counseled. “Let’s take a look at this. Let’s do what we all agree, at a minimum, is in the interests of the American people. And if you want to add more, we can fight about it later.”
After months of skeptical questions and prognostications of failure, Biden took delight in teasing the media: “All along, you told me I can’t do any of it anyway. From the very beginning. No, no, come on, be honest. Okay? You didn’t believe we could do any of it. And I don’t blame you. Because you look at the facts, you wonder, ‘How is this going to get done?’”
Biden was both disciplined (declining to talk about Iran, refusing to speculate on paid family leave) and gracious in deflecting criticism. In joking about moderate Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who previously declared that Biden was not elected to be FDR, he showed the self-deprecating humor that used to be his default setting. “I don’t intend to [be] anybody but Joe Biden. That’s who I am. And what I’m trying to do is do the things that I ran on to do.”
The president returned to his familiar empathetic tone, acknowledging the strain Americans have been under and the grief and frustration they’ve felt. “Covid has disrupted almost every family one way or another,” he said, “whether it’s wearing a mask or losing a family member. You know, 750,000-plus Americans dead — 750,000.”
People are also concerned about high prices at the store, he observed. “You can understand why people are upset,” he said. And “whether you have a PhD or you’re — or you’re working, you know, in a restaurant, it’s confusing. And so, people are understandably worried.”
Nothing buoys a politician like success — or defying critics’ predictions of failure. Democrats can take some measure of comfort from Biden’s return to his sunnier tone, his self-deprecating humor, his jokey relationship with the media and his expressed empathy for ordinary Americans. Here is the politician who won the presidency by more than 7 million votes — and who will need to have their backs during the midterm battles that lie ahead.