On March 12, President Joe Biden held a press conference with Vice President Kamala Harris, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to celebrate the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act—ARP, for short. With his party’s other leading figures around him in the Rose Garden, discussing the first major product of their “unified” control over the executive branch and Congress, it was as close to an official mission statement as the new president has taken the opportunity to make.
After emphasizing the parts of the huge, deficit-financed spending bill that provide direct payments to low-income and middle-class Americans, Biden took a metaphorical step back to describe what he believes it accomplishes philosophically. “The bill does one more thing, which I think is really important,” he said. “It changes the paradigm.” Specifically, he said, “for the first time in a long time, this bill puts working people in this nation first.” About three weeks later, Biden went to Pittsburgh to introduce an even larger spending proposal—ostensibly related to infrastructure, but really just a plan for trying to fix everything—and said he wants it financed by tax increases on wealthy individuals and corporations.
Changing the paradigm by redistributing money from the rich to the poor and the middle class is a plan Bernie Sanders could (and does) support, described in a way that’s only a thesaurus away from Elizabeth Warren’s call for big, structural change. It’s an embrace of the kind of populism that was described for years—by people like Joe Biden—as being too divisive and disruptive to appeal to the American public as a whole. And according to the polls, the American public as a whole loves it! They’re eating it up, like a bunch of hogs!
How is he getting away with it? The answer probably involves some structural factors—the ever-widening maw of inequality and segregation that threatens to pull the American dream once and for all into its vast darkness, and such—and some good timing, courtesy of accelerating vaccine distribution and the comparative effect of having taken over from one of the worst presidents ever. But another thing that differentiates Biden from the Democrats who were considered unelectable radicals for proposing the things he’s doing is the way he talks.
Consider this thesis statement from the speech Sanders gave when he announced his 2020 campaign.
Today, I want to welcome you to a campaign which tells the powerful special interests who control so much of our economic and political life that we will no longer tolerate the greed of corporate America and the billionaire class—greed which has resulted in this country having more income and wealth inequality than any other major country on earth.
Sanders went on to name the enemy, or, rather, list the many enemies: “the private health insurance companies,” “the pharmaceutical industry,” “Walmart, the fast food industry, and other low-wage employers,” “corporate America,” “the fossil fuel industry,” “the prison-industrial complex,” “the top 1 percent and the large profitable corporations,” “large, multinational corporations,” and “Wall Street, the insurance companies, the drug companies, the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, the fossil fuel industry and a corrupt campaign finance system that enables billionaires to buy elections.” He used the words destroyed, attacked, slashed, and starvation, and described “greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior” in addition to “greed, hatred, and lies.” He referred three times to a “struggle,” and twice each to a “fight” and a “revolution,” using the phrase justice on its own six times and moral responsibility once.
Elizabeth Warren’s campaign announcement speech was similar, although Warren spent less time rallying moral outrage against particular depraved outcomes and more time outlining the history and mechanisms of a system she described six times as being “rigged” against the middle and working classes. Her remarks opened with a description of a strike by tens of thousands of textile workers in 1912 during which some strikers were killed, and went on to sketch out the means by which lobbyists and donors, in her telling, manipulate a corrupt government for the benefit of wealthy special interests in the present day. What united both Sanders and Warren’s visions was confrontation. The forces against them were strong, active, and irredeemable, and while they could be surmounted, it would take a fight, or a revolution.
Biden has adopted the descriptive language of the left in many ways, making frequent reference to the portion of the Trump tax cuts that benefited the top 1 percent of earners (83 percent, he says), citing the idea of “rewarding work, not wealth” as a mantra, and projecting concern for the people and groups who have been “left behind” by those “at the top.” But he hasn’t co-opted its sense of confrontation. Words he hasn’t used (in the context of American politics) since becoming president include cheat, corrupt, donor, greed, lobbyist, rigged, or structural. Twelve of the 14 times he’s said Wall Street, it’s been to suggest that its analysts support his economic vision. He has mentioned fighting for U.S. companies (“to ensure that American businesses are positioned to compete and win on the global stage”) but not against them. At his most hostile, Biden will lament the disproportionate benefits accrued by “corporations” or the misguided ideas of “my Republican friends.” (The exception to this rule is Donald Trump, whose tenure and policy objectives he mentions with a casual contempt.)
This was how Biden elaborated, at the Rose Garden event, on the trickle-down era that, in his telling, the ARP has supplanted:
For too long, it’s been the folks at the top—they’re not bad folks. A significant number of them know they shouldn’t be getting the tax breaks they had. But it put the richest Americans first, who benefited the most. The theory was—we’ve all heard it, especially the last 15 years—the theory was cut taxes on those at the top and the benefits they get will trickle down to everyone. Well, you saw what trickle-down does.
The enemy in the passage above is not a person or even an institution, but a theory. Continued the president: “This is the first time we’ve been able to—since the Johnson administration, and maybe even before that—to begin to change the paradigm.” (One wonders what the version of Joe Biden who played a role in the harsh 2005 bankruptcy bill and the top-down, too-big-to-fail bailouts of the Obama era thinks about that statement.) Then he explained how he thinks the new paradigm works.
We don’t have anything against wealthy people. You got a great idea, you’re going to go out and make millions of dollars, that’s fine. I have no problem with that. But guess what? You got to pay your fair share. You got to pay something, because guess what, folks who are living on the edge—they’re paying. And so again, all it’s done is make those at the top richer in the past and everyone else fallen behind. This time, it’s time that we build an economy that grows from the bottom up and the middle out. The middle out.
And this bill shows that when you do that, everybody does better. The wealthy do better. Everybody does better across the board. If that’s our foundation, then everything we build upon will be strong. A strong foundation. Our competitiveness around the world, the jobs here at home, the health and quality of our lives. That’s what the American Rescue Plan represents. It’s all about rebuilding. What I’ve been saying, and Bernie, and a lot of others are saying, the backbone of this country, the backbone of this country are hardworking folks, hardworking folks, middle-class folks, people who built the country. And I might add, I think unions built the middle class. It’s about creating opportunity and giving people a fair shot. That’s really all and everything it’s about.
Biden describes the rollback of the trickle-down era as a conventional-wisdom no-brainer, selling it, in his March 31 speech, as a necessary step toward new achievements in national greatness that will be on par with the intercontinental railroad, the interstate highway system, and NASA. He’s turning the page, but the previous chapter is mentioned only in vague terms, as one during which few people did anything wrong, or, if they did, made anything more than a good-faith mistake. If possible, he would prefer to rebuild the middle class without talking about who destroyed it.
Biden had a front-row seat to a presidency whose agenda was held back by accusations of divisive class-warring. Those charges were largely unfair: Barack Obama was as loyal a friend as (regulated) American capitalism will ever have, and there was barely a socially liberal banker or corporate lawyer from New York City, Chicago, or D.C. whom he didn’t try to hire to work in his administration. The notion that he was unusually hostile to business depended in large part on the fact that he was Black, which made him susceptible to accusations of being radical, socialist, Muslim, secretly African, or whatever—it didn’t have to be accurate to convince some people that he wasn’t part of the American tradition as they understood it.
As an Irish-presenting white guy, Biden began the game with an unfair advantage, but he has not squandered it. A Morning Consult poll found that voters, by a 54–33 margin, support the idea of paying for an infrastructure bill with tax increases over the idea of paying for one without tax increases or not passing one at all; a Data for Progress poll taken before Biden’s announcement framed the choice slightly differently, as one between raising taxes and cutting spending, but got similar results. While CEOs are reportedly annoyed behind the scenes about the potential for higher taxes, their public response has been polite, even helpful: JPMorgan’s analysis described Biden’s proposals as “manageable,” while Amazon’s Jeff Bezos said in a statement that his company is “supportive of a rise in the corporate tax rate.” Democrats in Congress are indicating there will be some negotiating over the form tax increases will take, but there is a consensus that they will, at some point this summer, pass an enormously redistributive spending bill and don’t expect or even fear that they will pay a political price for it.
Perhaps it was because donors, lobbyists, and special interests didn’t see what was sneaking up on them, or maybe they never cared as much about points on the margin, as they wanted to be given credit for having, at least in some sense, earned their money. But the long and short of it is that corporate America is not reacting to a Democratic president’s transformative tax-and-spend proposals as an existential threat. The battle foreseen by Sanders and Warren seems to have ended, for the most part, before it ever began, and Joe Biden won.