Joe Biden, the Reverse Ronald Reagan

Four decades later, another elder statesman seeks to transform Americans’ ideas about the size of government.,


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Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your wrap-up of the week in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

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 Joseph R. Biden Jr. — couldn’t possibly have predicted how President Ronald Reagan’s words would come to define politics for generations. But for the decades that followed, Mr. Biden, along with most of his party, would operate in the shadow of Mr. 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.

Until now.

This past week, four decades to the day after Mr. Reagan’s address, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 — Mr. 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 on 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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’s some evidence that Mr. Biden may be able to accomplish what Mr. Obama could not. Since the start of the pandemic, polling has found Americans expressing more positive sentiments about their government over all. Nearly two-thirds of Americans supported Mr. Biden’s relief bill, with similar numbers backing his infrastructure plans. The most recent NBC News polling found that 55 percent of Americans said government should do more, compared with 47 percent 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’s 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.

Former President Donald Trump, too, helped hasten the death of limited government, undercutting Republican credibility for making the case against federal spending. He drove the national debt to the highest level since World War II, pushing through a $2 trillion tax cut that did little for middle-class families.

While Republicans spent, Democrats embraced a liberal wing of their party that had long argued that free-spending proposals like universal health care, free college and raising the minimum wage were popular with voters. The enthusiasm within the party for Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential primary bid in 2016 helped drive that case. By the time he ran again in 2020, most of his rival primary candidates had adopted some of his ideas — including Mr. Biden.

Razor-thin Democratic margins in the Senate mean that Mr. Biden can pass some of his program without Republican support. Those efforts have their limits: Senate budget rules curtail what Democrats can push through with simple majority votes. But so far party leaders show little sign of restraining their ambitions. “Big, bold action,” Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, promised in an interview this week.

“The center has moved,” said Faiz Shakir, a political adviser to Mr. Sanders who managed the senator’s 2020 presidential campaign. “And Biden is aware, as a politician, of the progressive moment in history that he’s operating in.”

That was clear as Mr. Biden made his way up the aisle of the House chamber after his speech on Wednesday, shaking hands and schmoozing with a small group of lawmakers who attended in person. After the president left the podium, one of the first lawmakers he greeted in the hall was Mr. Sanders.

For a brief moment, it wasn’t totally clear which one of the two former primary rivals was the real winner. Sure, Mr. Biden has the presidency. But like Mr. Reagan, Mr. Sanders seems to be winning the political revolution.

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We want to hear from our readers. Have a question? We’ll try to answer it. Have a comment? We’re all ears. Email us at or message me on Twitter at @llerer.

… That’s the number of false or misleading statements, according to the Washington Post Fact Checker, that Mr. Biden made during his first 100 days in office. That compares with 511 such statements in Mr. Trump’s first 100 days.

Shut. It. Down. All of it. (For a week.) cc: Joe Biden, my bosses, everyone in America.

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