Joe Biden's speech to Congress last night didn't exactly contain any policy surprises. Most everything he discussed, particularly his American Jobs Plan infrastructure proposal and his American Families Plan to help working families, had already been announced by the White House, with detailed fact sheets and everything. After four years of the last guy shooting his mouth off, we don't want surprises, thank you very much. There wasn't a single "what the hell is he even talking about" line in the speech, and certainly nothing to rival George W. Bush's 2006 pledge that the US would never create "human-animal hybrids."

But wow, it sure was nice to hear a Democratic president escape the ideological jail of Bill Clinton's 1996 proclamation that the "era of big government is over." Instead, Biden again and again emphasized that government can and should work to make Americans' lives better, because promoting the general welfare involves more than just standing aside and hoping the invisible hand of the marketplace won't crush too many of us.


Americans Are A Good Investment

As expected, Biden spent much of the speech plugging his two big Build Back Better proposals: the infrastructure plan and the human infrastructure plan, making the point again and again that government can and should invest in programs that will help people. Not simply because it's the right thing to do, but also out of economic utilitarianism: When people have basic security and the ability to know their needs can be met, they're free to contribute more to the economy as a whole. Educate people and they'll be better workers and citizens; provide childcare and family leave, and they'll be able to work without fearing the rug being pulled out from underneath them.

So it shouldn't surprise anyone that Biden said the word "jobs" 43 times in his speech, pointing out at every chance that both physical and human infrastructure will create growth and opportunity. He framed his plan to fight climate change in terms of economic growth, too:

For too long we've failed to use the most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis: Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. For me, when I think climate change, I think jobs. The American Jobs Plan will put engineers and construction workers to work building more energy efficient buildings and homes. Electrical workers, I.B.E.W. members, installing 500,000 charging stations along our highways so we can own the electric car market. Farmers, farmers planting cover crops so they can reduce the carbon dioxide in the air and get paid for doing it.

And let's have two years of free community college to get people trained for a lot of those jobs, too.

Infrastructure Is People. IT'S PEOPLE!

OK, fine, it's also roads and bridges and the electrical grid, but the point is that infrastructure is also education, child care, a living wage, and the systems of care that make it possible for us to contribute meaningfully to the economy, too. And that economy should be for everyone, not just the fat cats who have managed to skew the tax laws to their advantage since the Reagan administration. Consider it Biden's politically smarter (but no more true) version of Barack Obama's "you didn't build that." Sure, Biden said, plenty of nice people work in the financial sector.

But Wall Street didn't build this country. The middle class built the country. And unions built the middle class. [...]

And by the way, while you're thinking about sending things to my desk, let's raise the minimum wage to $15. No one, no one working 40 hours a week, no one working 40 hours a week should live below the poverty line.

Let's Bury Reaganomics And Salt The Earth, For America

Biden also said it's well past time we finally put away the supply-side fantasy. There's never been any evidence that skewing the economy to give advantages to the wealthy does much good for anyone else. Turns out you can't really feed American families with whatever crumbs might fall from the One Percent's banquet table. During the pandemic, Biden pointed out, 20 million Americans lost jobs.

At the same time, roughly 650 billionaires in America saw their net worth increase by more than $1 trillion, in the same exact period. Let me say it again. 650 people increased their wealth by more than $1 trillion during this pandemic and they're now worth more than $4 trillion. My fellow Americans, trickle-down, trickle-down economics has never worked. It's time to grow the economy from the bottom and the middle out.

That's a point repeatedly made by Barack Obama, and by my favorite billionaire, Nick Hanauer, who has this ridiculous notion that if the vast numbers of lower- and middle-income people had a fairer share of the nation's wealth, that would be far better for America than tilting the economy to favor the one percent — and it would be better for the one percent, too, since if people were less poor, they'd buy more stuff and coincidentally not be in the mood to erect any guillotines.

Here's The Deal, And It's New

As this excellent piece at Vox points out, Biden seems happy to embrace comparisons to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, particularly when it comes to the idea that government can do great things to make Americans' lives better. As Biden said last night,

We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works, and we can deliver for our people.

In our first 100 days together, we have acted to restore the people's faith in our democracy to deliver. We're vaccinating the nation, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. We're delivering real results, people, they can see it, feel in their own lives. Opening doors of opportunity. Guaranteeing some more fairness and justice. That's the essence of America. That's democracy in action.

Biden explicitly recalled FDR, noting that "in another era when our democracy was tested," Roosevelt "reminded us, in America, we do our part. We all do our part." And as Vox's German Lopez points out, Biden believes Americans will find that a more attractive message than the toxic sink-or-swim ideology that's reigned since Reagan, and which led to more than half a million deaths in the pandemic:

The bet that Biden is making is that Democrats' abandonment of the FDR legacy is precisely what gave rise to Trumpism: By failing to address expanding economic inequality, the collapse of manufacturing hubs, the slow recovery after the Great Recession, and the opioid epidemic, the federal government enabled the public discord and rage that enabled Trump. By acting more boldly now, the thinking goes, Biden can help reverse these trends.

The stakes couldn't be higher. And Biden seems like the right guy to make that clear to Americans. Now, all we have to do is make sure we're willing to get the unum back in our e pluribus.

[NYT speech transcript / Crain's Detroit Business / NPR / Vox]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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