What caretaker presidency?
If you thought that President Joe Biden was going to be content whiling away his four years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, serving, as he once described himself, as a “transition[al]” candidate and president, then the last few weeks should put that misconception to rest.
Even if he stopped at the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act, the most sweeping piece of anti-poverty and economic stimulus legislation in a decade or more, the 46th president’s legacy would be assured. But with this week’s rollout of a two-pronged, $2 trillion infrastructure program that is cinematic in its scope and far-reaching in its ambition, it’s clear that Biden has an eye on the history books.
And that shouldn’t be a surprise either. As CNN reported earlier this week, Biden has positioned a portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt across from the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, which means the father of The New Deal is staring across the room at him during his working day.
The Delaware Democrat and his staff immersed themselves in the lives and works of Roosevelt and President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose work on the Great Society and civil rights legislation were similarly transformative. He also consulted with a panel of presidential historians shortly takin office, CNN further reported.
“It was interesting to hear these historians talk about what other presidents have gone through, and the moments, and who were the people who stepped up to the ball, and who’s the people that didn’t,” Biden said during a CNN town hall last month.
Now comes the task of selling it the American people, and to a Congress where Biden will encounter skepticism from progressives who do not consider it ambitious enough, and from Republicans who have mysteriously woken up from four years of deficit spending under the previous administration, and found their inner fiscal conservative.
During a stop at a union hall in Pittsburgh on Wednesday where he unveiled the plan, Biden set exactly the right tone, positioning his infrastructure proposal as a “once in a generation” opportunity to remake the face of the nation by not only funding such typical infrastructure projects such as rebuilding roads, but also advance the country’s transition to a clean energy future by expanding the number of electric vehicle charging stations, and by combating climate change.
He argued, persuasively, that the nation was being presented with an opportunity that rivaled the construction of the interstate highway system, under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the dawning of the space race, under Democratic President John F. Kennedy.
It was a neat historical trick, At a time of profound political division, Biden evoked the bipartisan memory of two, beloved presidents who each transcended their moments to rally an entire country. Biden, who has promised to be a president for all Americans — not just those who voted for him — made the most of it.
“Historically, infrastructure had been a bipartisan undertaking, often led by Republicans,” Biden said. “So there’s no reason why it can’t be bipartisan. The divisions of the moment shouldn’t stop us from doing the right things for the future.”
The question now is whether the nation believes in itself enough to follow this transformational moment to its logical conclusion. I’d argue that, despite some hefty challenges, it is still very much possible.
As a nation, we like to think we’re exceptional, pointing to advancements in science and healthcare; to such towering, man made achievements as the Hoover Dam and other edifices constructed with the sweat and toil of human hands and the bright spark of American ingenuity. Our civic high church, the National Mall, pays tribute, up and down its length, to our fellow citizens who have given the full measure of devotion.
After four years of a self-interested chief executive who appealed to the smallest and meanest things in us, and the trauma of a pandemic that has so far claimed more than a half-million American lives, we might think that we’re afraid to dream so big ever again.
But as the polling showed with the first stimulus package, Americans are looking to their government now to help and to solve problems in a way that they have not in years. The infrastructure package appeals to that heroic conception of ourselves as a nation that works and gets stuff done.
Congressional Republicans, who like shovel-ready photo ops during midterm years, but dislike handing wins to a Democratic White House, have the choice of getting on board or getting out of the way. And if they obstruct, Biden, who says he’d like Republican cooperation, shouldn’t be shy about again jumping on the budget reconciliation express and pass the plan without GOP support. It’s that important.
The funding mechanism for the package, an increase in corporate taxes that would raise the maximum rate from 21 to 28 percent (which is still lower than the former top rate of 35 percent), also allows Republicans to claim a win, of sorts. As Biden points out, it would sock corporate behemoths such as Amazon, which paid federal taxes for the first time in years in 2019, CNBC reported. If Republicans and Democrats can agree on nothing else, it’s their disdain for Amazon.
Last April, at the dawning of the pandemic, as Congress tinkered with the first coronavirus relief package, I wrote that we would eventually need more than a mere reopening, that we’d need a reset on everything, a complete rewiring of the way we think about everything, and the way we treat each other as a people.
With the plan Biden unveiled Wednesday, we’re being presented with that very opportunity, to heed our higher angels, and to aspire the way our parents and grandparents did.
We owe it to them, and to all who we lost, to seize this moment; to not only reopen, but to remake the nation once more.
What caretaker presidency?