Biden to historians: How can I remake America as quickly as possible?

Doesn’t he mean “How can Joe Manchin remake America as quickly as possible?”

Because nothing’s getting done unless the more important Joe says it is.


Read this short but vivid Axios item about the president huddling with a group of historians recently to indulge their mutual fantasies about a third era of very big Big Government. There was the New Deal under FDR, the Great Society under LBJ, and now … the “Build Back Better” Program under JRB, maybe?

One important difference between Sleepy Joe and those other two, notes Charles Cooke, is that they swept to power with massive majorities among voters and Biden, ah, did not. Pushing an aggressive agenda to shift the country meaningfully leftward might be defensible if he could plausibly claim a mandate. As it is, not only did he narrowly avoid defeat in November by squeaking through in a few key swing states, he’s facing a Senate deadlocked at 50/50.

The difference between Biden and FDR/LBJ is that they spent their huge reservoir of political capital to pursue hugely ambitious programs whereas Biden’s going to pursue hugely ambitious programs in hopes of earning a huge reservoir of political capital.

President Biden recently held an undisclosed East Room session with historians that included discussion of how big is too big — and how fast is too fast — to jam through once-in-a-lifetime historic changes to America.

Why it matters … The historians’ views were very much in sync with his own: It is time to go even bigger and faster than anyone expected. If that means chucking the filibuster and bipartisanship, so be it…

People close to Biden tell us he’s feeling bullish on what he can accomplish, and is fully prepared to support the dashing of the Senate’s filibuster rule to allow Democrats to pass voting rights and other trophy legislation for his party.

He loves the growing narrative that he’s bolder and bigger-thinking than President Obama.


Note the last line. The great Republican fear about Biden’s presidency before the election was that he’d be muscled by progressives into enacting their agenda, too weak and doddering to stand up to them once they started making threats. But they’ve used a carrot with him so far rather than a stick. Instead of trying to bully him, they’ve spent the past two months comparing his COVID relief bill favorably to Obama’s much smaller stimulus after the 2008 financial crisis. For Biden, that must be intoxicating. He was a nonfactor against O in the 2008 primaries and then spent his time as VP being completely overshadowed by his much younger, more charismatic, history-making running mate, “The One.” Imagine having endured that, only to be told now by Obama’s former cheering section that you’re actually much closer to being “The One” than he turned out to be. The ego boost he’s getting from it must be immeasurable.

As for why Sleepy Joe would be in a hurry to push bold legislation through as quickly as possible, there’s no shortage of reasons. He’s 78, of course. Whether he’ll be in any condition to run for another term is an open question. The GOP is momentarily disorganized, with Trump and his faction angry at and resentful of the McConnellites. Most of the political energy among populists right now is aimed at punishing Liz Cheney and Republican impeachment supporters more so than stopping Biden. (The party is so distracted that it barely made an effort to try to turn the public against the COVID relief package.) Biden may also crave speed for its own sake, because it leaves an impression: The faster he can get major bills passed, the more lustrous his legacy will appear — again, especially in contrast with the post-ObamaCare gridlock that his boss experienced. And he’s been around long enough to know that healthy approval ratings don’t last forever. He’s enjoying a bit of a honeymoon right now, especially with vaccinations increasing. He won’t have forever to capitalize.


There’s also the small fact that Republican are highly likely to make gains in the midterms, meaning realistically that Biden probably has little more than a year to try to get anything through the Senate before the window closes on his presidency. He might as well go big, especially if he’s skeptical that he’ll run again. The next item on his agenda is infrastructure — or rather “infrastructure,” since actual infrastructure is just part of what the White House has in mind for the bill. They’re going to make this a grab-bag of left-wing wishlist items in addition to the spending on roads and bridges that you’d expect.

That effort is expected to be broken into two parts — one focused on infrastructure, and the other focused on other domestic priorities such as growing the newly expanded child tax credit for several years

The infrastructure component is expected to include $400 billion in spending to combat climate change, including $60 billion for infrastructure related to green transit and $46 billion for climate-related research and development. The plan also would aim to make electric-vehicle charging stations available across the country. The measure would also include $200 billion for housing infrastructure, including $100 billion to expand the supply of housing for low-income Americans.

The second component of the effort would include many of Biden’s other domestic priorities. Those include universal prekindergarten and free community college tuition. The package also would dramatically expand spending on child care, and extend for several years the expansion of the child tax credit recently signed into law for just one year as part of the stimulus plan.


The political plan is simple. Between the spending on the COVID bill, the spending on “infrastructure,” and the organic economic boom everyone’s expecting once we reach herd immunity and pandemic restrictions lift, Biden’s expecting job growth to be so explosive that the midterm results might just upend the usual expectations and extend the Democrats’ House and Senate majorities. If that were to happen, they might be able to finally dump the filibuster even without Manchin’s and Sinema’s votes. Hence the urgency aimed at passing H.R. 1 by hook or by crook, even if it means convincing Manchin to carve out a filibuster exception for voting rights to do it. That’s part of the same electoral project, to go big on policy and then go big on expanding ballot access in hopes of building a more durable Democratic majority in 2022.

I’m skeptical that it’ll work, but there’s no reason to believe that a more modest agenda would serve Democrats better. The laws of political gravity are usually enough to restore the out-party to the majority in midterms. Biden and Pelosi are going to try to build an antigravity machine, figuring they have nothing to lose. Assuming Manchin lets them, of course.

One major casualty of this FDR 3.0 strategy, though, is Biden’s reputation as a centrist and a “uniter.” That image, so carefully cultivated during the campaign, has already begun to fall apart after the party-line vote on the stimulus and the Dems’ interest in eliminating the filibuster:


I’ll leave you with this, from Cooke: “If Axios is correct about Joe Biden’s mindset, then Biden has perpetrated a monumental fraud on the American public. For the man whose quiet pitch was more ‘return to normalcy’ than ‘fundamentally transform,’ to believe that he is the Progressive Chosen One would be an extraordinary thing indeed.”

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David Strom 5:00 PM | May 23, 2024