Joe Biden, the Reverse Ronald Reagan
By Lisa Lerer
Forty years ago, a new president stood before a joint session of Congress and delivered a simple message: “Our government is too big, and it spends too much.”
Sitting in the audience, the junior senator from Delaware — a young Joe Biden — could not possibly have predicted how President Ronald Reagan’s words would come to define politics for generations. But for the decades that followed, Biden, along with most of his party, would operate in the shadow of Reagan, believing that an outright embrace of big government would be politically detrimental. Like so many Democrats, he joined efforts to curb deficits, fretted about government spending and generally favored more incremental kinds of policies that could attract bipartisan support.
Last week, four decades to the day after Reagan’s address, Biden put forward a very different approach — one that historians, political scientists and strategists in both parties believe could signal the end of fiscal conservative dominance in our politics. In his speech before Congress, Biden sketched out an agenda packed with “once in a generation” investments that would touch nearly every corner of American life — everything from cancer research to child care to climate change.
“It’s time we remembered that ‘we the people’ are the government. You and I,” he said. “Not some force in a distant capital.”
With Biden’s early agenda, his administration is making what amounts to a $6 trillion bet that the dueling crises of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic downturn, paired with the political upheaval of the Trump era, have rekindled the romance between Americans and their government. Through his COVID relief bill and infrastructure proposals, Biden is striving to prove that government can craft policies that tangibly improve our daily lives, delivering benefits like improved roads, more education, better internet, paid time off to care for a sick family member, and help supporting older parents.
White House aides say that Biden also sees government as the solution for a more abstract kind of problem: a deeply polarized country that might be unified around a national response to a series of crises involving climate change, racial justice, public health and the economy.
The administration is hardly hiding its effort — Biden has self-consciously cloaked himself in the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, an attempt to hark back to an earlier age of liberalism when government pulled the country out of despair.
“We have to prove democracy still works,” he said in his speech Wednesday, “that our government still works — and can deliver for the people.”
Succeeding in that mission will mean accomplishing a sea change in American politics. The idea that Reagan put forward in his 1980 campaign — that Americans were sick and tired of government — was internalized by both parties.
For Republicans, it became a core belief. Democrats, for their part, tried for decades to co-opt the idea.
President Bill Clinton’s strategy of triangulation was essentially an effort to lift pieces of Reaganism for Democratic gains. “The era of big government is over,” he famously declared in his 1996 State of the Union address.
Deeply aware of the role Reagan played in shifting American views on spending, President Barack Obama took office in 2009 believing that his administration could help end the country’s adherence to conservative economic policy.
“Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” Obama said during his 2008 campaign. “He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the ’60s and the ’70s, and government had grown and grown, but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating.”
Yet Obama also struggled to escape that path, eventually moderating his agenda and spending months making fruitless efforts to get bipartisan support for his ideas. Even the health care law that would come to be named after him was a compromise between liberals, who wanted a single-payer system, and moderates, who feared the size of such a huge new program.
There is some evidence that Biden may be able to accomplish what Obama could not. Since the start of the pandemic, polling has found Americans expressing more positive sentiments about their government overall. Nearly two-thirds of Americans supported Biden’s relief bill, with similar numbers backing his infrastructure plans. The most recent NBC News polling found that 55% of Americans said government should do more, compared with 47% who said the same a dozen years ago.
Unlike in 2009, when the government response to the Great Recession helped ignite the tea party movement, there has been no backlash so far to the big spending in Washington. After Congress passed the $1.9 trillion relief bill, many Republican voters told me that they were supportive of the legislation. Republicans in Washington have struggled to find a cohesive line of attack against the policy. And some who voted against the bill now highlight its benefits, an implicit acknowledgment of public support.