Opinion: Biden’s screenshot moment

Saladin Ambar | April 30, 2021 | Opinion, Politics
‘The clock has now begun ticking on the politics of Trump and the power of Reaganism’
Saladin Ambar

Americans would be wise to hold onto their local newspapers from Thursday. For many, that may mean taking a screenshot of a homepage online. But either way, April 28 was likely a pivotal day in recent American history. While Joe Biden was busy proposing over $6 trillion in government spending to transform the nation’s infrastructure, child care system, and economy, federal agents were sitting down somewhere cataloging and perhaps already reviewing the findings from Rudolph Giuiliani’s home and Park Avenue offices. What a difference 100 days make.

By the next midterms, Americans should know whether or not we’ve truly moved away from the politics of bridge shutdowns and tunnel-building deferrals, to the politics of building and investment. If Democrats are routed, you can delete those screenshots and trash those newspapers. But, if Biden’s gamble is right, and Democrats find themselves keeping both houses of Congress — or even expanding their margins — then chances are that photos of Biden delivering his address to a socially distant and sparse Congress, framed for the first time by two women behind him, will wind up in your kids’ history textbooks years from now.

As Brown University Professor Jim Morone reminded my Rutgers University students over Zoom on the day of Biden’s address, “American politics are always changing.” Will our tribal politics hold, as Morone has chronicled in his recent book “Republic of Wrath,” or will we enter a new age of political comity and citizen engagement? Morone’s answer — the answer of American history — seems to say “yes.” That is, we are likely to experience some permutation of both possibilities. The difference is that this generation of students is far less divided by tribal politics and the old Cold War fears of “socialism” or Ronald Reagan’s admonitions against big government, than those that have come before them. Morone’s bet is Biden’s bet: We are poised to change our national trajectory, because it is the demand of this new generation.

Evoking FDR

While FDR spoke of Four Freedoms in 1941 — freedom of worship, of speech, from fear, and from want — Biden talked about four national challenges. These included “access to a good education,” “access to affordable child care,” the need for extended paid family leave, and a broad, seemingly all-encompassing effort to “put money in the pockets of millions of families” who are struggling.

These speeches, delivered 80 years apart, may well mark the arc from New Deal liberalism to Reaganism, and back again. The novelist Ralph Ellison once noted that history doesn’t fly linearly, but rather as a boomerang. Looking at the price tag of Biden’s proposals, conservatives are looking to duck; progressives are looking to catch and run. Snap polls are notoriously unreliable, but in the glow of the moment, Biden’s team undoubtedly went to bed Wednesday with the sugar plum of a CBS poll showing 85% approval of the speech dancing in their heads.

Republicans may find such numbers as maddening as Democrats found approval for Ronald Reagan’s speeches over a generation ago. The advantages of being an older, genial white male is something Barack Obama could not enjoy. But part of Biden’s magic — like that of Reagan’s — is the ability to tell a hopeful story, one that is deeply connected to the history of America. That we are more likely as a nation to believe such stories from those who resemble kindly white grandfathers doesn’t diminish the rhetorical power that links Biden and Reagan. And as the presence of Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi behind Biden demonstrated, the next two most powerful people in American politics are not white men, but a Black woman of South Asian ancestry, and a white woman, the daughter of Italian immigrants. What a difference 100 years make.

Reaganism recedes

Ronald Reagan famously said the nine most frightening words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Not any longer. Americans seem to want help from the government. They want new bridges, roads, schools, affordable health care, child care, and a great many other things. And whatever fears they continue to hold, they certainly don’t want to see an assault on the Capitol as the solution. Republicans will have to come up with answers on their own terms — to attempt what Bill Clinton attempted a generation ago — to move several steps toward the other party’s philosophy, while holding onto as much of your party’s identity as possible.

With the Department of Justice’s exercising of a warrant Wednesday to seize Giuliani’s documents, and Biden seemingly seizing the moment, the clock has now begun ticking on the politics of Trump and the power of Reaganism. As Morone warns, things are ever changing in American politics, but the tide of change seems very much to favor a progressive agenda — at least for one historic night.