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E. J. Dionne: The Biden they didn't expect

E. J. Dionne: The Biden they didn't expect

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WASHINGTON — Since Donald Trump has stopped being president in anything but name, President-elect Joe Biden decided to assume the role six days early.

In announcing his $1.9 trillion economic rescue package on Thursday night, ahead of his inauguration on Wednesday, Biden made clear that his quest for bipartisanship will not crimp his policy imagination or his determination to go big to revive the economy.

He showed that Democrats have learned from the Obama years that excessive caution in the face of a severe economic downturn is a mistake for both policy and politics.

And he argued his case in terms that can only be described as “populist,” pointing to the “growing divide between those few people at the very top who are doing quite well in this economy and the rest of America.”

Biden also made clear that he intends to fend off criticism from Trump-style economic nationalists by stressing his commitment to American manufacturing, to “a future made in America, all made in America and all by Americans.” At one point he said “American” (or some variation) nine times in nearly one breath.

By giving such a policy heavy speech, Biden demonstrated how different his rhetorical and substantive approach will be from Trump’s. In some ways, the message was very simple: Governing is back.

But Biden was also unapologetic in stressing how much of his program will be directed toward lower-income Americans. He called for a $15 minimum wage, stressed programs to ease hunger and evictions, and embraced a variety of tax credit expansions, made “refundable” so those who pay little or no income tax can collect them. If adopted, he said, his plan “would lift 12 million Americans out of poverty and cut child poverty in half. That’s 5 million children.”

The specificity of his speech—it was a kind of mini-State of the Union address — will free Biden to give a thematic, unifying and lofty inaugural address. It was also a challenge to Republicans. With Democrats holding just 50 seats in the 100-member Senate — their majority will be secured by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote — Biden and his party may, in the end, have to resort to what is known as the “reconciliation process,” through which certain measures can pass by a simple majority rather than the typical 60 votes.

But Biden wants to test the GOP, hoping to entice some Republicans to support an initial round of spending that is focused entirely on the immediate crisis. It includes, for example, more than $400 billion to combat the pandemic directly. After a House debate in which so many Republicans claimed they opposed impeaching Trump for the sake of national “unity,” Biden offered a pointed message. “Unity is not some pie-in-the-sky dream,” Biden said. “It’s a practical step to getting the things we have to get done as a country . . . together.”

In the early stages of the Democratic presidential primary, the party was said to be divided between “restorationists” and “transformationists,” with Biden cast as the premier advocate of restoring the norms, values and habits that Trump ignored—or sought to destroy. Among Biden’s leading challengers, Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., argued that the crisis that led to Trump’s election required more than a return to better values. The country needed, in Warren’s signature phrase, “big structural change.”

Now, on the verge of power, Biden seems to speak for both wings. He remains in principle a believer in cross-party cooperation and he is an institutionalist who has filled his administration with experienced hands who believe in traditional approaches to governance.

But pushed by his competitors, responding to a deep national crisis, and reflecting a certain inborn egalitarianism bred by his background, his religious faith and his old ties to the labor movement, Biden has embraced a program that is more energetic and far-reaching than either his friends or his critics expected when he announced his candidacy in April 2019.

His address on Thursday brought this home. So did the response of his former rivals, with Sanders — who is likely to push to expand on Biden’s offering — calling it “a very strong first installment.”

Before his formal entry into the presidential race, Biden listed the core questions the country would answer in 2020: “What kind of nation are we becoming? What are we going to do? Who are we?”

Trump’s defeat and his disgrace leading up to last week’s impeachment pointed to the majority’s hope that the country would become something very different. We will learn more today, but Biden is signaling that he sees the challenges of the last year — and the last four — as demanding change on a scale few anticipated he would embrace.

E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.

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