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Americans should not be surprised by Biden’s agenda

Jules Witcover, syndicated columnist

WASHINGTON — A year ago, before Joe Biden’s election to the highest American public office, New York magazine published an article titled “Biden is Planning an FDR-style Presidency.”

The author, Gabriel Debenedetti, noted that former Obama vice president Biden had captured the Democratic Party nomination “by relying on perceptions that he was an older, whiter, less world-historical (and less inspiring) Barack Obama — a steady hand who seemed more electable against a monstrous president than any of his competitors did. The heart of his pitch, whenever he delivered it clearly, was status quo ante, back to normal, restore the soul of the nation.”

But the COVID-19 crisis and Trump’s bungling of it, the author went on, “have dramatically widened Biden’s path to the presidency,” convincing him that the pandemic was breaking the country much more deeply than the Great Recession did and that it would require a much bigger response, especially with no miraculous recovery expected soon thereafter.

But it was one thing to muse in private about such sweeping intentions, and another to put them out in public to spur support for himself in the November election. Biden also floated some specific actions he had in mind upon taking office, including rejoining the Paris climate accords abandoned by Trump, and later signing executive orders protecting gender equality and much higher relief benefits.

All these circumstances changed Biden’s perceptions of what the country would need from him as president, just as the Great Depression had dictated FDR’s course. “Already,” Debenedetti wrote then, “his recovery ambitions have grown to include plans that would flex the muscles of big government harder than any program in recent history.”

He quoted Biden envisioning “a hell of a lot bigger” spending than the $2 trillion already used for coronavirus stimulus: “whatever it takes.” As for worrying about the federal deficit, the article said, Biden argued that even if one was concerned about the size of the federal deficit, massive public investment “was the only thing capable of growing the economy enough ‘so the deficit doesn’t eat you alive.’ “

In the interview, Biden clearly had in mind pouring huge funds into combatting the pandemic in tandem with city and state governments, through wider testing, development and administering vaccines on a grand scale, at government expense. He thus served early notice that he understood the dimensions of the task he would be undertaking, and what it would require in boldness and resolve.

Even earlier in his 2020 campaign, he told CNN’s Chris Cuomo: “The blinders have been taken off because of the COVID crisis. I think people are realizing, My Lord, look at what is possible, looking at the institutional changes we can make, without becoming a socialist country or any of that malarkey.”

The latter flip remark was Biden jargon in reference to the standard Republican complaint that the rival party continues to be on a leftward decline to unvarnished socialism. But up to now at least, aggressively taking on the pandemic and providing massive relief to its victims appears to have considerable bipartisan appeal, no matter what the cost to the federal deficit.

President Biden is responding accordingly, as he has said he would from the start of the current public-health and economic nightmare. So it should have come as no surprise to close Biden watchers that he has hit the ground running.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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