Pithy, but pointed. That was, in fact, Reagan’s approach to the utility of the government, an approach embodied in his efforts to extricate government from public life and, therefore, to slash spending and taxes. By the time he left office, this was the default position of his party and was successful enough as a selling point that even the next Democratic president, Bill Clinton, embraced the idea of cutting taxes and overhauling the welfare system. It became a mantra which intertwined with the concept of American individualism: I’ll do it myself, thanks.
But then the coronavirus pandemic happened and the federal government went from saying, “I’m here to help” to “good luck with that.” The Trump administration pushed the pandemic response to the states over and over again: buying protective equipment, scrambling for tests and, ultimately, managing distribution of vaccines.
By August of last year, a remarkable shift had occurred, as measured in polling conducted by Fox News. For years, the network’s pollsters had asked Americans which message they wanted to send to the government, “lend me a hand” or “leave me alone.” Consistently, the more popular response was the latter, that confident rejection of the need for assistance. And then the pandemic hit.
In 2019, Americans were 21 percentage points more likely to say “leave me alone.” In August 2020, they were 21 points more likely to say “lend me a hand.” Even among Republicans, the two sentiments were about evenly cited, a 60-point shift from the prior year.
On Thursday night, President Biden gave his first prime-time address to the nation. In it, he offered careful optimism for how and when the worst of the pandemic might finally fade.
He also offered a variant on the theme of unity he’s presented since his inauguration.
“We know what we need to do to beat this virus. Tell the truth. Follow the science. Work together,” he said. And then: “Put trust and faith in our government to fulfill its most important function, which is protecting the American people. No function more important.”
“We need to remember the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital,” he continued. “No, it’s us, all of us. We the people.”
Over the course of the pandemic, Americans hadn’t placed much trust and faith in the government to do that. Polling from Gallup shows that most of the country was skeptical not only of President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic but also of the efforts undertaken by federal institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This wasn’t without cause: The CDC’s slow and stumbling initial efforts marred early testing efforts and exacerbated the uncertainty of the pandemic’s early months. Over the rest of the year, Trump and his allies in conservative media, hoping to shore up Trump’s popularity with an election looming, preferred to continue to blame government agencies and officials like Anthony S. Fauci for both the ongoing scale of the pandemic and for efforts at containment.
For Biden, increased public confidence in the government would offer benefits beyond simply bringing the pandemic to a more rapid end. Hours before his speech, he signed into law a massive coronavirus relief bill that introduced a number of new government policies and programs, which he and his allies clearly hope will continue to bolster support for an active government response. If the public starts to accept government help as useful or beneficial, it becomes easier for Biden to propose other policies at similar scale and scope.
Biden framed his defense of government as a defense of the idea that the federal government is nothing more than Americans working together for the common good. It’s a somewhat archaic idea, technically correct but one which undervalues the scale and inertia of much of the government’s executive branch. But that idea also helps reinforce Biden’s presentation that he’s the face of communal action, the guy who’s simply enacting the will of the public.
On the relief package, polling has repeatedly shown that he’s doing just that: it has the approval of two-thirds of the country, including 40 percent of Republicans. It means that Biden missed the opportunity to riff on Reagan’s line, telling the country that the 11 most popular words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and your check is in the mail.”
Then again, he probably didn’t have to.