On Thursday, at his first news conference as president, Joe Biden did more than just detail his plans and take questions from reporters.
He outlined what amounts to a new political ethic for him, suggesting that big ambition — rather than accommodation, or the “unity” he so often spoke of on the campaign trail — might be his guiding doctrine.
Biden repeated one particularly telling phrase three times in a row — “I want to change the paradigm” — and made it clear that he intended to move ahead with his policy agenda as uncompromisingly as he could, with or without Republican support. It’s a message he is likely to drive home this week, when he appears in Pittsburgh to unveil his proposal for a multitrillion-dollar investment in infrastructure and jobs.
In the process, he is undercutting the exact brand of center-lane neoliberalism that he worked so hard to enshrine, more than four decades ago, as a young senator in the Nixon and Carter years.
“This is an interesting story,” the historian Rick Perlstein, whose books detail the rise of late-20th-century conservatism in American politics, said in an interview. “The story is him turning his back on the ideological direction that he helped lead the Democratic Party into.”
“I want to get things done,” Biden told reporters on Thursday. “I want to get them done consistent with what we promised the American people. And in order to do that in a 50-50 Senate, we’ve got to get to the place where I get 50 votes, so that the vice president of the United States can break the tie, or I get 51 votes without her.”
It was an interesting innovation on a common Biden theme: pragmatism. “I’ve never been particularly poor at calculating how to get things done in the United States Senate,” he said.
As recently as the 2020 campaign, Biden was emphasizing the need for Republican support in order “to get things done” — but he is now arguing that savvy politicking and partisanship go hand-in-hand. By posting wins, he hopes to bring more voters onto his side.
Partly, that means embracing the possibilities that come with control of both houses of Congress — something Democrats had, almost without interruption, from 1933 to 1981, but that they have mostly lacked since the rise of President Ronald Reagan.
Jonathan Alter, who has written books on Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter, said that Biden’s approach harked back to the economic populism of the New Deal era, when Roosevelt unified the Northern and Southern blocs of the Democratic Party around major liberal initiatives.
“I think ‘paradigm shift’ is an important way of saying that he is going to give new life to the social contract of the New Deal,” he said. “Roosevelt had these jobs programs. They had direct hiring. It wasn’t trickle-down economics; it was direct investment in the economy.”
He continued: “Democrats, I think, are trying to return to this idea that it’s not wasteful tax-and-spend liberalism — which is the label that they started using against Jimmy Carter and all the Democrats that followed — but prudent investments.”
Alter said that Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package already put him ahead of what Roosevelt had doled out by this point in his first term. “It’s hard to imagine, but in his first 100 days he didn’t spend nearly as much in constant dollars as Biden has,” Alter said, referring to adjustments that account for inflation.
When Carter ran for president in 1976, a young Senator Biden — a first-term moderate, whose star was on the rise — became the first senator to endorse him. Amid a sputtering economy and rising crime rates, Carter, a former small-business owner and Navy engineer, believed the Democratic Party was ready for a change of orthodoxy.
“He had a kind of deep distrust of the New Deal tradition,” Perlstein said, pointing out that upon taking office Carter canceled a number of infrastructure projects that would have expanded government-backed employment.
Biden’s message at the time was right in line with this approach. “In 1978, when he ran for re-election, he boasted that he was the most frugal senator,” Perlstein said.
Biden was also publicly ambivalent about many of the steps that Democrats were taking to protect the legacy of the civil rights movement, becoming the most prominent Democrat not representing a Southern state to oppose school busing — and later helping to craft the kinds of tough-on-crime policies that would lead to a huge spike in the number of Black and brown men in federal prisons.
Biden was “determined to be seen as a more moderate Democrat, especially on issues like busing,” Alter said.
By the time Biden mounted his first run for president, in 1988, the political tides seemed to validate that path. Four years earlier, Walter Mondale had lost in a landslide to Reagan after promising major investments in public services and higher taxes on wealthy Americans. Though Mondale framed his proposals through a lens of fiscal pragmatism — saying they would drastically cut the budget deficit — Reagan seized the opportunity to label Mondale a tax-and-spend Democrat, and he won re-election easily.
Raising taxes became a third rail in American politics, and the next time a Democrat won the presidency — Bill Clinton, in 1992 — he did it partly by shying away from big liberal promises. In his 1996 State of the Union address, ahead of a successful re-election campaign, Clinton declared in a triumphant tone, “The era of big government is over.”
But as Biden highlighted the economic impact of his $1.9 trillion relief package last week, it was hard not to hear echoes of a different Democrat’s campaign language from the 1980s: Jesse Jackson, arguably the most left-wing Democratic presidential contender in both 1984 and 1988. He had pledged to “keep hope alive,” at a time when American politics were turning rightward.
“I can say to you, the American people,” Biden said on Thursday, “help is here and hope is on the way.”
Public opinion polls have indicated that Biden’s first big salvo was widely popular: Upward of six in 10 Americans supported the relief package, according to polls conducted just before it was passed. And as he pushes for raising taxes on the richest Americans, he is speaking to a country that is now arguably more worried about inequality than it is knee-jerk opposed to taxation.
A Politico/Harvard University poll last month found that 73 percent of the country said Biden should make it an “extremely important priority” to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, while lowering them for the middle class. Biden has said that raising taxes on individuals making over $400,000 a year would be critical to funding his investments in infrastructure and jobs.
For Perlstein, the president’s trajectory calls to mind the career of not Roosevelt or Carter, but Lyndon Johnson. “In 1960, when he was picked as the running mate for Kennedy, liberals were practically in mourning that this conservative, establishment, segregation-adjacent Southerner had been picked,” Perlstein said. “Immediately, when J.F.K. was assassinated and he picked up the ball, he became the guy who expanded the New Deal for a new generation.”
Perlstein added that only “those really closest to him, who understood how much his heart beat for the poor and how sedulously he’d been waiting for this opportunity to move America’s racial ideal in a different way, would’ve expected that.”