According to the folks at Nielsen, Joe Biden’s big speech Wednesday night — his first, if unofficial, State of the Union — was a ratings flop.
But if those who skipped the speech had known what they’d be missing, it might have been a different story. This was the night in which Biden would declare an end to Reaganism — trickle down economics, Biden advised, never works — and a proposed return to New Deal/Great-Society-style politics.
It was a strange night, as the commentators kept reminding us, with COVID regulations leaving the House chambers more than three-fourths empty. But the setting — even with the promise of two powerful women, a vice president and a speaker of the House, sitting behind Biden — was the least of it.
The real story is that unassuming Joe Biden — described by the loathsome Ted Cruz, who was seen dozing during Biden’s speech, as both boring and radical, a rare twofer — gave a speech not far removed from one FDR could have given. Or that LBJ could have given. That Ronald Reagan, taking away the progressive politics, could have given. As you’d expect from folksy Biden, there was no towering rhetoric, but there was a very large policy package.
And to this point, all the polls show Americans solidly approve of most of Biden’s proposed infrastructure/jobs package and his separate American Families Act. They are happy, too, with the COVID relief bill, particularly as millions of checks have landed in people’s bank accounts.
But to get the rest of his economic package passed is another story. Biden can expect no help from Republicans and he has a long way to go to persuade some members of his own party, particularly Joe Manchin, who seems to be going out of his way to make his dissenting voice clear. Biden has to hope that this is Manchin’s play to make his own indelible mark on any legislation.
It’s no secret why Biden didn’t score great TV ratings — ratings are down for everything; check out the Oscars, which, as we know, most people didn’t — when compared to his immediate predecessors. But we have to remember that both Obama and Trump were made-for-TV phenomena.
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Joe Biden, on the other hand, was just Joe Biden, an old Washington hand — one who got the Democatic nomination because he seemed the safest choice — who had preached, during his COVID-plagued campaign, a return to post-Trumpian normalcy. He certainly wasn’t preaching revolution. This was the same guy who famously fought with Elizabeth Warren over credit cards, banks and bankruptcy.
And yet, to the surprise of nearly everyone, particularly progressives, the transitional president has shown that he wants to be a transformational president despite the fact that he has the absolute minimum of support in Congress. Just as a reminder, FDR had a 23-vote margin in the Senate and LBJ had a whopping 36-vote margin. As we know, Biden’s Senate majority relies on a vice-presidential tie-breaker.
How much of Biden’s economic program — and we’ll leave to the side, for the moment, issues like police reform, immigration reform and the rest — could get passed? Predictions are hard, as the saying goes, especially about the future. But Biden does have momentum and a very small window in which to take advantage of it. Midterms are already in sight, and the party in power nearly always loses seats in the midterm elections, often many seats, and Democrats can ill afford to lose any.
Here’s what Biden has in his favor, beyond the ability to use reconciliation — do we still have to explain it? — to avoid the dreaded filibuster:
One, it is hard to sell Biden as a radical, whatever his proposals. He doesn’t look like a radical. He doesn’t sound like a radical. He has spent many decades in Washington and I can’t remember any time than anyone called him radical. At times, calling him liberal was a stretch. But he’s likeable, and not just likeable enough. He has empathy after four years of an unprecedented empathy deficit. His approval ratings aren’t great, in the low- to mid-50s, but they tower over Trump’s. Republicans don’t know quite what to do about any of that. The Dr. Seuss wars don’t seem to be working. Lauren Boebert tried out her Mylar space blanket. Don’t think that worked, either.
Two, COVID-19 laid bare many of the problems facing American families, even in better times. The need for paid leave for caregivers. The need to subsidize day care and extend the guarantee of free school from pre-K through community college. The monthly child credit payments, which would not only cut child poverty in half while also reducing the costs of either staying home with the kids or having a career while raising kids. We saw how many parents, especially mothers, dropped out of the workforce during COVID to care for children. We also need a wakeup call in America to help solve the problem of caring for seniors with Alzheimer’s and other diseases.
Three, after Republicans ignored deficit spending under Trump, they have little credibility — I’d say no credibility — when calling out Biden and the Democrats as big spenders, particularly given that the Trump tax cut put Americans something like $2 trillion in the hole.
Four, it has been Biden’s plan, coming 40 years after Reagan’s, coming a generation after Bill Clinton’s big-government-is-over declaration, that government can work and is, in fact, necessary. I’m not big on 100-day checkoffs, but, since everyone else is counting, Biden has gotten shots in arms. The economy is beginning to boom again, although, to this point, with the expected inequities, which Biden’s economic package would, to a large degree, address. Despite Trumpian warnings of disaster, even the stock market is in the midst of a huge rally. Presidents get too much credit or blame for the economy, but Biden will gladly accept the credit. And as Biden would say, clearly differentiating himself from the last guy, we did it.
But what Biden and the Democrats most have going for them is Trump and the Republicans, who spent four years showing how government shouldn’t work, particularly in the disaster that was the pandemic response. Meanwhile, instead of looking to alternatives to Biden’s plans, Republicans are busily fighting the last war, still spreading the Big Lie. According to the Dem-leaning Colorado KOM poll, 67% of Colorado Republicans say they think the 2020 election was stolen. In Arizona, they’re doing another 2020 recount. Florida is the latest Republican-controlled state to pass its version of voter-suppression laws.
The culture wars remain at a fever pitch. Republicans say Biden wants to take away your hamburger. Meanwhile Biden — and we’ll have to see if he is biting off more than he can chew — is offering the whole enchilada.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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