What happened to Joe Biden? Many people thought he was a moderate incrementalist, but now he’s promoting whopping big legislative packages that make many on the progressive left extremely happy.
I asked him that when I spoke on the phone with him this week. The answer seems to be — it’s complicated.
The values that drive him have been utterly consistent over the decades, and the policies he is proposing now are similar to those he’s been championing for decades.
It’s the scale that is gigantically different. It’s as if a company that was making pleasure boats started turning out ocean liners. And that’s because Biden believes that in a post-Trump world we’re fighting not just to preserve the middle class, but to survive as the leading nation of the earth.
“We’re kind of at a place where the rest of the world is beginning to look to China,” Biden said. “The most devastating comment made after I was elected — it wasn’t so much about me — but it was by the Irish taoiseach” — prime minister — “saying that ‘Well, America can’t lead. They can’t even get their arms around Covid.’”
I asked him how he developed his view of the role government should play in our lives. He started talking about his dad. During World War II his father managed a branch of a company that retrofitted merchant vessels. When he started a wholesale business after the war, his partner blew all the money on his gambling problem.
“After the war he was doing fairly well and that’s when he lost everything,” Biden recalled. From then on, Biden’s dad mostly struggled, taking any job he could get. “I watched my dad get the hell kicked out of him in terms of his pride.”
This may seem like an unusual way to answer a question about the role of government, but it is quintessential Biden. Some people get their worldviews from ideological constructs or philosophical movements like “conservatism” or “progressivism.” Biden derives his worldview from lived experience, especially the world of his youth, and how his parents taught him to see that world.
It created the moral underpinnings of the big legislative packages he is proposing.
The story about his father includes the key elements of the Biden worldview.
First, a social location. What matters is not only how a person sees an issue, but also where he or she sees it from. Biden sees most issues from the vantage of the folks that used to be called “the common man,” the lower-middle- and middle-class Truman Democrats he grew up around.
Second, an acute awareness of the vicissitudes of life. Biden said that his dad once showed him an image of the comic strip Viking, Hagar the Horrible, getting hammered by life and screaming out, “Why Me?!” God answers, “Why Not?” Biden still has that comic strip. “That was my dad,” he added.
Third, an intense focus on human dignity. “I think the Irish most often use the world ‘dignity’ of any other group of people,” Biden said. “I think it’s because when you’ve been deprived of dignity you put a high, high premium on it.” In the white ethnic hierarchies of midcentury America, “To be Irish was to be second class,” Biden recalls. “The English owned the town.”
Out of these three elements emerges a governing philosophy, and subsequently a set of policies, that works strenuously to support people amid the setbacks of life, that offers people good jobs so they can live with dignity, that pushes against the arrogance of wealth.
Another piece of his basic worldview comes from 20th-century Catholic social teaching. He said that his father loved the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, and later in the conversation mentioned that he, too, was guided by Maritain.
Like most of the major figures of Catholic social teaching, Maritain placed great emphasis on social solidarity, the organic interdependence of people and communities. If you’re drenched in Maritain, you believe we have serious responsibilities for one another.
Out of these basic values grows a practical legislative agenda. The White House gave me a long list of various Biden legislative initiatives, showing how long Biden has been championing many of the ideas that are in his current big packages.
In 2003, according to the White House document, he co-sponsored a bill to expand the Refundable Child Tax Credit. In 1993 Biden introduced “The Infrastructure Growth and Employment Act.” In 1974 he voted to raise the minimum wage, something he’s done many times since. In 2003 he voted to create a tax credit for caregivers. In 1983, he effectively voted to increase funding for education by $1.5 billion.
When you look at the legislation he’s sponsored or supported over the decades, you notice that the dollar amounts are generally in the millions or low billions. Today, the Biden agenda is in the trillions. So what has changed, even since January 2017, when he and Barack Obama left office?
“I think circumstances have changed drastically. We’re at a genuine inflection point in history,” Biden said. He says we’re experiencing a “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” which encompasses developments ranging from the rise of information technology to the rise of the Chinese superstate, to shifts in the global competitive environment.
Biden spent a lot of his Senate career working on foreign policy matters and sometimes talks about domestic policy through an international or grand strategic lens.
“We’ve gotten to a point where I think our economic competence has a gigantic impact on our international influence and capacity,” he said.
He grew up when America was the undisputed world leader and now he sees that rapidly slipping away, failing to invest enough in research and development.
“We’re eating our seed corn,” he continued, quoting corporate executives who talked to him about how the private sector wasn’t looking to the long term.
In this context, Biden sees the greatest risks in incrementalism.
“The risk is not trying to go big,” Biden said. “If we stay small, I don’t know how we change our international status and competitive capacity.”
The Biden administration has broken with the thinking that dominated the Clinton and Obama administrations in other ways as well, though it’s not clear how much of this is driven by Biden and how much by the team around him. As Ronald Brownstein noted in The Atlantic, for years the dominant Democratic view was that wages would rise if you gave people more skills and education. The dominant Biden era view is that you also have to give people more union bargaining power to balance corporate power. For years Democrats predominantly believed you could help Black Americans if you designed colorblind policies aimed at the working class. Now Biden officials are more likely to believe you have to create race-conscious policies that explicitly benefit Blacks.
So has Biden now become a straight-up progressive? Biden certainly doesn’t think so. “The progressives don’t like me because I’m not prepared to take on what I would say and they would say is a socialist agenda.” He thinks the people who take the big risks to generate wealth should reap the big rewards.
He’s suspicious of the generous college debt forgiveness plans that have sprung up on the left. “The idea that you go to Penn and you’re paying a total of 70,000 bucks a year and the public should pay for that? I don’t agree.”
There’s also a difference in the way Biden and the left critique big corporations. Some on the left make a comprehensive critique of capitalism, while Biden wants capitalism to keep within the bounds of common decency. He argues that corporations used to take responsibility for their communities, now it’s just shareholder value. “The C.E.O.s back as late as the 70s were making 35, 40 times as much as the average employee. Now it’s 320 times. What are they promoting? What are they doing? As my mother used to say, ‘Who died and made you boss?’”
I asked him, where is the limit between what government should and shouldn’t do? He said workers should “earn what they get. But they have to be given an opportunity. I think the thing that moved us ahead of the rest of the world at the turn of the 20th century was the notion that we had universal education.” Then he added, “If we were sitting down today to say, ‘OK, what does public education consist of in the 21st century?’ Think anybody would say 12 years is enough? I don’t.”
Biden has written that his grandfather and Finnegan uncles were Truman Democrats and suspected Adlai Stevenson because they thought he was too soft. There’s long been a tension between the union wing of the Democratic Party and the college educated professional wing.
Over the last decades, the heirs of Stevenson — Rhodes scholars and Ivy League grads — have dominated the heirs of Truman and the party has tended to see the world from the vantage of college educated professionals.
But Biden is from the other side of the party.
“He was at his best and most comfortable when meeting with union guys,” an economics aide who worked with Biden for more than a decade told me. It’s telling that in his address to Congress last month, he bragged that “nearly 90 percent of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan don’t require a college degree; 75 percent don’t require an associate degree.”
Biden is not a progressive in the current sense. He is the kind of liberal that emerged after World War II: confident in America’s greatness, confident in the state, having little interest in the culture wars that emerged since the 1960s, fierce about civil rights, deeply rooted in the working and middle classes.
Biden hasn’t really changed; he’s just doing everything bigger.
Image Credits: Hilary Swift for The New York Times