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Opinion Biden goes big, bold and populist

President Biden delivers his address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. Behind Biden are Vice President Harris, left, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)
President Biden delivers his address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. Behind Biden are Vice President Harris, left, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

President Biden on Wednesday night went big, populist, folksy, hopeful, urgent — and bipartisan and partisan at the same time.

Addressing a pandemic-reduced gathering of lawmakers at the Capitol, Biden proposed a sweeping program of change that would create four more years of free schooling, expand child care and family leave, and attempt to beat back climate change through large infrastructure investments.

He pressed for police reform — to “rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve” and “root out systemic racism” — as well as broad reforms to political and voting rights, big repairs to the immigration system, and new gun-control measures.

Biden welcomed the help of Republicans again and again, but he took clear aim at their favored economic doctrines. “My fellow Americans, trickle-down economics has never worked,” he declared. “It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle-out.”

And he took a victory lap on progress against covid-19, proclaiming that widespread vaccinations were offering “a dose of hope.”

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This address wasn’t exactly the New Deal or the Great Society, but it was equally ambitious. Biden, reassuringly unradical with his plain, avuncular demeanor, is bidding to create a new common sense rooted in political lessons that Democrats have learned the hard way.

Since Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, Democrats have been attacked for forgetting their working-class past and becoming a party dominated by educated elites. Much of the GOP’s populism may be phony, but the attacks stung.

Biden, ever ready to cite his childhood in blue-collar Scranton, Pa., signaled again that he would have none of it, pitching his policies as designed to lift up not the credentialed elite but those who “feel left behind and forgotten in an economy that’s rapidly changing.” He departed from prepared text to observe that these were “so many of the folks I grew up with.”

Calling his American Jobs Plan “a blue-collar blueprint to build America,” he noted that nearly 90 percent of its infrastructure jobs “do not require a college degree” and that “75 percent don’t require an associate’s degree.”

And in a deft bit of political jujitsu, he touted his proposed investments in alternative energy to fight climate change as a form of economic nationalism. “There’s no reason the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing. . . . No reason why American workers can’t lead the world in the production of electric vehicles and batteries.”

Yet Biden and his lieutenants were thinking of not just the past four years but the four decades since the rise of Ronald Reagan. Behind almost every move and argument he outlined was a desire to avoid repeating the errors and miscalculations of his party’s past.

Since the Reagan era, Republicans have succeeded at running up deficits with tax cuts for the wealthy and then becoming prophets of deficit doom when Democrats took office again.

So on Wednesday, Biden said that while his program was expansive, he was paying for it: “I’ve made it clear we can do it without increasing deficits.”

GOP politicians regularly accused Democrats of harboring a wish to raise everyone’s taxes. As a result, Biden repeated his commitment not to raise taxes on any families earning less than $400,000 a year. And he stressed that some of the largest tax increases would be on those earning more than $1 million annually — roughly, as Biden noted, three families in 1,000. “I will not add to the tax burden of the middle class of this country,” he declared. “They’re already paying enough.”

Conservatives, of course, have long cast themselves as champions of traditional values — “family, work, neighborhood,” in Reagan’s resonant formulation. Biden’s plan can be seen as a new and confident progressivism grounded in Reagan’s trio of old values.

Biden organized the latest installment of his agenda under the banner of the American Families Plan. For Biden, “family values” means families getting help so their members can take care of each other. “No one,” he declared, “should have to choose between a job and paycheck or taking care of themselves and a loved one — a parent, spouse, or child.”

He spoke of his proposals for two years of preschool and two years of free community college as investments that would pay off in a growing economy. In his prepared text, the words “job” or “jobs” appeared more than 40 times.

But for all his specific programs and reforms, Biden defined historic stakes for the nation when he said that “the central challenge of the age” is “proving that democracy is durable and strong.”

“Autocrats will not win the future,” he declared. “America will.”

Of all his promises, that’s the one the country will have to keep.

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