“Come Wednesday, we begin a new chapter.” So said President-Elect Joe Biden tonight as he laid out a plan for a $1.9 trillion emergency vaccination and relief package to get the country through and past the coronavirus. The Trump administration created no federal program for the distribution of the coronavirus vaccine, leaving us woefully behind where we need to be to get our population vaccinated. And the virus is spreading fast. Over the past week, we have had an average of almost 250,000 new cases a day of coronavirus, with daily deaths on either side of 4000. We are approaching 390,000 recorded deaths from Covid-19.
Biden’s plan calls for $50 billion to ramp up Covid-19 testing, including rapid tests, and to help schools and local governments establish regular testing systems. It calls for an investment of $30 billion in the Disaster Relief Fund to make sure it can provide supplies for the pandemic.
It starts by addressing the pandemic, for both Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris believe that until people are comfortable circulating again, the economy will not rebound. But the plan also calls for federal support to rebuild the economy, a reflection of the ongoing crisis that in the last week led 965,000 Americans to turn to unemployment insurance for the first time, joining more than 5 million who have already filed claims.
The plan calls for $1400 stimulus checks for individuals, expanded unemployment benefits through September, an end to eviction and foreclosure until September 30, $30 billion to help people meet payments for rent or utilities, and a $15 minimum wage. Biden is calling for aid for child care, a $3 billion investment in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and $350 billion for state, local, and tribal governments to support front line workers.
Biden laid out his ambitious plan even as fallout continued from the January 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C., when Trump supporters tried to overturn his victory in the 2020 election. Today the FBI continued to track down and arrest rioters, while the pro-Trump faction of the Republican Party continued its attempt to wrest control from establishment Republicans.
But while Republican lawmakers are calling for “unity” to deflect attention from the riot and to avoid accountability, Biden used this speech, at this time, to calm tensions and call for unity to move all Americans forward.
He emphasized, as he always does, that he wants to be a president for all Americans, not just those who voted for him, and that if we work together we can accomplish anything. He tried to appeal to disaffected Republicans by highlighting his plan to bring manufacturing jobs back to America, as well as to create new, well-paying jobs in new fields and in long delayed infrastructure projects. To reach out to religious voters who were horrified last week by the vision of those who self-identify as Christians calling for the death of Vice President Mike Pence, Biden emphasized the morality in the plan: a good society should not let children go to bed hungry.
He made a sharp contrast with the current president, not only by sharing an actual plan to confront real problems, but also by empathizing with Americans who have lost loved ones to the pandemic and who are hurting in the stalled economy. “Every day matters, every person matters,” he said.
But Biden’s plan is far larger than a way to address our current crisis. It outlines a vision for America that reaches back to an older time, when both parties shared the idea that the government had a role to play in the economy, regulating business, providing a basic social safety net, and promoting infrastructure.
That vision was at the heart of the New Deal, ushered in by Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt after the Great Crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed it illustrated that the American economy needed a referee to keep the wealthy playing by the rules. Government intervention proved so successful and so popular that the Republican Party, which had initially recoiled from what its leaders incorrectly insisted was communism, by 1952 had adopted the idea of an activist government. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower added the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to the Cabinet on April 11, 1953, and in 1956 signed into law the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which began the construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highways.
While this system was enormously popular, reactionary Republicans hated business regulation, the incursion of the federal government into lucrative infrastructure fields, and the taxes it took to pay for the new programs (the top marginal tax rate in the 1950s was 91%). They launched a movement to end what was popularly known as the “liberal consensus”: the idea that the government should take an active role in keeping the economic playing field level.
The liberal consensus was widely popular, these “Movement Conservatives” turned to the issue of race to break it. After the Supreme Court unanimously declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Movement Conservatives warned that an active government was not defending equality but redistributing the tax dollars of hardworking white men to grasping minorities through social programs.
By 1980, Movement Conservatives were gaining power in the Republican Party by calling for tax cuts and smaller government, slashing regulations and domestic programs even as they poured money into the military and their tax cuts began moving money upward. By the 1990s, Movement Conservatives had gained the upper hand in the party and, determined to take the government back to the days before the New Deal, were systematically purging it of what they called “RINOs”—Republicans in Name Only. They would, they said, make the government small enough to drown it in a bathtub.
As they dragged the country toward the right, Republicans pulled the Democrats from the New Deal toward reforms Democratic lawmakers hoped could attract the voters they had lost to the Republicans. “The era of big government is over,” President Bill Clinton famously said, although he continued to protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid from Republican cuts.
The Democratic defense of an active government was popular—people actually like government regulation, social welfare programs, and roads and bridges. But Republicans continued to be determined to get rid of the liberal consensus once and for all, insisting that true liberty would free individuals to organize a booming economy. Trump’s administration was the culmination of two generations of Republican attempts to dismantle the New Deal state.
But now, the dangers of gutting our government and empowering private business to extremes have become only too clear. For four years, we have watched as a few privileged business leaders got rid of career government employees and handed their jobs to lackeys. The result has been a raging pandemic and a devastating economic collapse, as money has moved dramatically upward. Even before the pandemic, the Trump administration had added 50% to the national debt despite cuts to domestic programs. In the 2020 election, Trump offered more of the same. Americans rejected him and chose Biden.
Biden’s speech tonight marked a resurrection of the idea of an activist government as a positive good. He is calling for the government to invest in ordinary Americans rather than in the people at the top of the economy, and is openly calling for higher taxes on the wealthy to fund such investment. “Asking everyone to pay their fair share at the top so we can make permanent investments to rescue and rebuild America is the right thing for our economy,” he said. Unlike the New Dealers and Eisenhower Republicans of the mid-20th century, though, Biden’s vision is not centered on ensuring that a white man can take care of his family. It is centered on guaranteeing a fair economy for all, focusing on an idea of community that highlights the needs of women and children.
The idea of a government that supports ordinary Americans rather than the wealthy was first articulated by Abraham Lincoln in 1859 and was the system the Republicans first put in place during the Civil War. They paid for the programs with our first national taxes, including an income tax. After industrialists cut back that original system, Republican Theodore Roosevelt brought it back, and after it lapsed again in the 1920s, his Democratic cousin Franklin rebuilt it in such a profound way that it shaped modern America. With that system now on the verge of destruction yet again, Biden is making a bid to bring it back to life in a new form.
It is a new chapter indeed, but in a very traditional American story.
Heather Cox Richardson is an American historian and Professor of History at Boston College, where she teaches courses on the American Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, the American West, and the Plains Indians.