Commentary

Biden a transformational president? We’ve heard It before | Fletcher McClellan

April 30, 2021 6:30 am

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 28: U.S. President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of congress as Vice President Kamala Harris (L) and Speaker of the House U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (R) look on in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol April 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. On the eve of his 100th day in office, Biden spoke about his plan to revive America’s economy and health as it continues to recover from a devastating pandemic. He delivered his speech before 200 invited lawmakers and other government officials instead of the normal 1600 guests because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

At the 100-day mark of his presidency, Joe Biden is getting rave reviews for his performance. So much so, Biden’s address to Congress and the nation this week might be interpreted as a victory lap.

Fletcher McClellan (Capital-Star file)

Conversely, to take an embarrassing example from the Philadelphia Eagles, Biden might be spiking the football too soon.

Make no mistake, the president is off to an extraordinary start.

The U.S. is on track to exceed Biden’s goal of 200 million vaccinations since he was inaugurated. Over 40% of the population is partially vaccinated, and nearly 30% is fully vaccinated.

Boosted by the enactment of the president’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan, the American economy added one million jobs in March alone. Forecasters indicate the economy will grow by 7-8% this year, the highest annual rate since 1984.

Not only did Biden claim real progress, he asked Congress for action on two more $2 trillion proposals.

According to the president, the American Jobs Plan addresses the nation’s infrastructure needs, points the way toward a carbon-neutral economy, and sets the stage for long-term economic growth.

His new proposal, the American Families Plan, would provide every American free community college and pre-K schooling. It seeks to end child poverty, ensure affordable child care, and provide paid family and medical leave.

The president plans to pay for the two newer plans by rolling back President Trump’s 2017 tax cuts. That means higher income tax rates for the affluent, higher capital gains and corporate taxes, and a fortified Internal Revenue Service.

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Needless to say, if Biden can secure passage of all his spending plans, along with the proposed tax hikes, it would bring down the curtain on the Reagan Revolution and raise a new era of activist government, rivaling the New Deal and Great Society.

Before Biden’s profile is mounted on Mount Rushmore, however, there are major obstacles in the way.

No Republicans voted for the relief plan, and no GOP member of Congress has expressed support for the Jobs and Families Plans.

Senate Republicans still have the filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes to stop debate, to block legislation. It is possible that the Biden infrastructure package could be exempted, but the families proposal will not.

Even without the filibuster, Democrats have razor-thin majorities in both houses of Congress. The defection of just one Red State Democrat in the Senate could halt the process.

Here’s how Pa. politicians reacted to Biden’s Congressional address

Republican-controlled state governments are enacting election laws aimed at curbing Democratic turnout in the 2022 and 2024 national elections. Stoking the conservative base, the GOP legislative agenda includes anti-transgender, anti-abortion, and pro-gun measures.

Republicans also have the upper hand in gerrymandering U.S. House and state legislative districts, although Democrats are in a stronger position than they were ten years ago.

To counter GOP moves, Biden and Congressional Democrats have proposed the For the People Act, which would expand access to the polls, reform campaign finance, and reestablish ethics guardrails. That, however, along with civil rights for LGBTQ citizens and D.C. statehood, will require maneuvers around the filibuster.

In short, President Biden needs a political revolution to achieve the economic and social transformation he wants.

It is not clear whether Biden can muster sufficient support to overcome the opposition party advantage in midterm elections and the thermostatic tendency of American voters to repudiate the governing party after two years of legislative activism.

After all, Biden is not the first post-Reagan president to prematurely herald a lasting change in American politics.

In his model of “political time,” the Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek observed that regime change takes place in the U.S. on rare occasions. Transformative or “reconstructive” presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan preside over a continuing political majority that produces policy and ideological changes.

Regime change occurs in two stages. First, the prevailing party disintegrates, offering tired solutions that do not address the problems of the day. Second, a new political coalition emerges, offering new or reformulated proposals that change the terms of debate for a generation or longer.

America is well into the first stage. The party of Reagan has retreated into self-parody, subscribing to conspiracy theories (including the Trump “stolen election” canard that triggered the 1/6/21 insurrection) and caring more about “cancel culture” than workers cancelled by the pandemic, global economy, and technological change.

We will know that Biden has reconstructed politics if the American public believes government can be a solution to and not the cause of the nation’s ills.

Biden is gambling that his liberal agenda – so liberal that prominent progressives are amazed – will produce positive changes in American life that people can see and feel.

After a year of pandemic-induced seclusion, we are just now learning how to see and feel once again.

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.

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