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Visionary Agenda, But Practical?

Terry H Schwadron

April 29, 2021

Before an unusually coronavirus-reduced joint session of Congress, Joe Biden outlined his pitch last night for a government that helps people.

Basically, this was the man-who-would-be-moderate addressing real inequalities in this nation, risking renewed labeling by his opponents as “socialist” in virtually every phrase. In setting, timing and content, it was another utterly non-Donald Trump moment before a Congressional crowd that remains vocally split as to whether Biden actually legitimately won election to his presidency.

What Biden sketched in trillion-dollar proposals were overarching ways for public health to end this coronavirus and protect against the next, for economic stability that seeks to take more from the rich to offer more to the poor, that restores American engagement in the world as more a model democracy than we have allowed ourselves to reflect in reality and that seeks to create new jobs from energy yet to be harvested on a wide-enough scale to believe in fully. It specifically addresses expansive programs for child-care and education for pre-kindergarten and community college students.

Biden’s spoke optimistically, as he does repeatedly, more about values than any one specific proposal. In Biden’s vision, jobs without adequate pay are not really jobs worth building, health policies that do not protect in times of trouble are not worthwhile, immigration policies that don’t acknowledge America’s special role and even its self-protection as an economic engine are not worth discussing. It’s a message as admirable in scope as it is frustrating about getting done.

Naturally, that entire approach is an affront to Republicans who oppose taxes on wealthy and corporations to pay for it all, and who are eager to overcome the narrow majorities in the House and Senate and take control in 2022, and to stall as much as possible until the prospects for eking out legislative wins becomes impossible. Then they can argue for the opposite in each case — or, as before — do little but cut taxes for the wealthy and build a wall.

The more we hear from Biden, the more we’re presented with a question about the effective alternatives. It is clear that Republicans are simply out to say No — not only to his proposals, but to the realities of our deepest social problems. It is head-twisting to listen to the policy debate as if it is removed from headlines about another mass killing and more moves to loosening open gun-carrying laws about using “election integrity” to shut down voting rights for some, about more abusive policing shooting tapes, about the failure to want to look at the plotting behind the Jan. 6 attacks on the Capitol.

It does make you wonder why each party sees itself as “populist” when they have opposite views about helping average citizens.

Some Practical Steps

To his credit, Joe Biden is starting to follow up his grander proclamations with some practical steps, as happened with organizing vaccine distribution and getting coronavirus aid checks into the mail.

On Tuesday, Biden issued an executive order raising the minimum wage paid by federal contractors to $15 an hour, up from $11 set in 2014, beginning next year and affecting hundreds of thousands of workers. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that half of the 400,000 to get a raise will be women, and half are Latino or Black.

The executive order “ensures that hundreds of thousands of workers no longer have to work full time and still live in poverty. It will improve the economic security of families and make progress toward reversing decades of income inequality,” the White House said. It’s a policy goal, yes, but it is real.

He also moved to augment the staff of the Internal Revenue Service by $80 billion over the next 10 years to crack down on individuals and corporations that evade paying federal taxes. Of course, he wants to spend more of those taxes, an estimated $700 billion, on expanded social services reflected in his so-called American Families Plan that he outlined to Congress, but again, this is a practical, real step.

Indeed, there is an argument that the changes Biden seeks — most are “temporary” — will be hard to stop once they get underway.

Actually, Biden used a mix of the possible and the practical in his prepared address, a nice change from staying solely on the visionary without enough actual stuff for people to vote for or against. As a result, Republicans and Democrats are fighting over what the word “infrastructure” means, as if we could live better on potholes and bridge fixes alone. Of course, they are split on how much money any government should spend, never mind Biden and Democrats.

Here’s my argument: Instead of objecting to vague “defund the police” notions, it is easier to frame the debate if the proposal at hand reflects, for example, a workable plan to take money for militarization equipment to hire non-armed civilians who have social work backgrounds to defuse street situations otherwise likely to escalate. The same is true for child-care, whether you lump it in an infrastructure bill or not. These huge omnibus spending bills may be needed politically, but it seems way too easy for opponents to find one thing in them to hate.

The speech

The joint session speech essentially replaced the official State of the Union address, but serving a similar purpose in promoting an agenda to Congress and the public. In this case, the speech 100 days into the administration allowed bannering a few achievements already in the books on coronavirus, Afghanistan withdrawal, Cabinet appointments and overturning Trump-era environmental rules.

It was an achievement to get the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion economic bill that delivered direct payments to individuals, as well as increased funding for unemployment benefits and businesses, through Congress and into American bank accounts.

Now, Biden will be promoting his next steps — the $2.3 trillion proposal aimed at fixing infrastructure and correcting inequities built into those systems that have historically disadvantaged low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. And he wants part two, another $1.8 trillion, to cover his proposed American Families Plan that would invest in services like paid parental leave, education and social services outside of health access.

Biden also used the address to underscore changes needed in policing following the Derek Chauvin conviction in the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May and new Department of Justice investigations of policing practices in Minneapolis and Louisville, where Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by police in March 2020.

Let’s hope spirits are lifted by the rhetoric, but made to address the hard practicalities of getting ideas turned into action.




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