Joe Biden gave his “First 100 Days” speech to Congress last night and it was a first for me. I’ve heard presidential candidates give speeches that had a bold vision for government, but candidates are running for office, they are not in power. I’ve heard contemporary presidents present a bold vision with many qualifiers – mainly what everyday people must give up to get a little help – but never no-bullshit, no-excuses, no holds-barred Let’s Go For It Now. And I’ve heard and read bold, visionary speeches from presidents that were given when I was too young to understand or not yet kicking – by LBJ, JFK, FDR, and even Ike. However, this is the first time I’ve heard any president speak like Biden did last night in real time. Lots to say, so, let’s start at the top.
Listen, when you start a speech with “Madam Speaker. Madam Vice President…No president has ever said those words from this podium; no president has ever said those words. And it’s about time”, you just won over most of America. Seriously, even if you take the darkest view of the US right now, I’d say 70% of women – Democrat, Republican, or independent – will reply, “Yeah, no crap, it is about time”, and at least 50% of men will, too. Restrict that poll to people under 60-years old and those percentage soar. Not only is that opener smart politics, it is the truth, something that needs to be spoken out loud. It is about fucking time that two of the three most powerful people in politics are women. Let’s make it a hat trick.
Biden said a lot of stuff that usually goes unsaid that needed to be said, such as: The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake noted that Biden tagged the phrase all of you after positive things that have happened during the new administration. Not only is this a departure from the last guy, whose name might as well have been “President Mimi” for all the times he said “Me me me me me,” it is not what presidents usually do. Even Obama, who was careful to include us rhetorically in our democracy, didn’t lean into all of you.
Biden hit all of you hard and often. All of us are responsible for the drastic drop in COVID rates among seniors, all of us are responsible for the expert rollout of the first phase of the mass vaccination program, and so on. The administration’s success is our success because our success is the administration’s success. And, once again, Biden wasn’t just being a smart politician; What he said is true! The vaccine sites have been run and worked by a large number of volunteers. People are helping people get and get to appointments, not because they are getting paid, but because they want to help. People are encouraging others to get the shot. These people didn’t fall from the sky, they are all of us. Of course, we have selfish reasons to help each other out of this pandemic – we want to “get back to normal” – but selfish reasons are good reasons if they benefit all of us!
Besides giving credit where it is due, all of you/us sends a very strong signal that this country is all of ours, that this democracy – flawed as it is – is all of ours, and that the future belongs to all of us. Again, contrast Biden’s message to that of the last four years. Trump preached that the country was for Trump first, his family second, his lackeys third, and white people, specifically straight white men, fourth. Trump went beyond asserting white male privilege, he tried to cement it with him and his family at the very top, and the Republican Party backed him up and are still backing him.
More than any other post-Reconstruction president, Trump tried to limit political power to a very small cadre of people. To get there, not only were we told that America is US vs THEM, Trump tried very hard to fix US vs THEM into two very distinct categories based first on who was on HIS side and second on US and THEM’s race, gender, sexuality, politics, religion, and other personal markers.
Trust me, I know that there have always been “two sides” in American politics – though actually there are more like three or four or even five sides – and that the “sides” have some very, very loyal and partisan people in them, however most of the people on the two, three, four, five sides aren’t live-or-die wedded to “their side.” It seems that way because we are being told this all the time and social media certainly focuses on the yelling, but when you poll people about issues and political identification, things start to get mushy.
For example, most America are pro-choice, which means – and polls back this up – there are pro-choice Republicans and anti-choice Democrats. There are Republicans that back every single one of Biden’s rebuild plans, as well as his tax proposals. I am not talking elected officials (though what they will tell you off the record is different than what they say on the stump), but everyday people, people that we don’t hear from on the news or in social media. The key is not focusing on the very, very loud minority of media whores and start talking to all of us.
This is what Biden is doing and why he has re-framed “bipartisanship” as something that is happening outside of Washington and state houses. He and his strategists are reading polls and concluding, “This is where America is at, so let’s talk to America and not treat Mitch McConnell and Keven McCarthy as the doorkeepers to America,” something that frustrates Republican leadership, including Trump, to no end. Their only counter to Biden’s “bipartisanship” is crying in their meat-based beer.
Another thing Biden leaned into last night is “tax and spend.” He made his case for spending the money we need to get the country back to where it needs to be – again smart verbiage. Biden isn’t framing this as a brave new world project, but a return to “normal.” Truth is that what he is proposing is both. For an ancient like Biden, government spending big on roads, bridges, classrooms, economic development, job programs, mass communication, healthcare, and nearly everything else he’s proposed is as American as Creedence Clearwater Revival, but as with John Fogerty, what Biden is proposing hasn’t been on the charts for decades.
And, to those of us who only know Reaganism, Biden’s words seem like a long-awaited rain storm hitting a drought-plagued land, something “new” and “needed” but not “brave.” There is nothing “brave” about making sure bridges don’t fall down, people are housed, and children are educated. So, for most of us, Biden’s “spending” is not a brave new world. The spending is much more “needed” than “brave”, “new to us” than “new and unique.” Or, to put it succinctly, it is fucking common sense and way past time we did it.
To be sure, what Biden is calling for is anything but radical. What is radical is what we’ve experienced since Reagan – the idea that there is no society, that we are a collection of individuals who must fight each other for what we need, that people living on the street and fending for themselves in a pandemic is not only okay and the natural order of things but deserved, and that, if we are to spend tax dollars, we must shovel money to those who have the most of everything, splurge on guns, and make working people pay for it all. Reaganism is what is radical. What McConnell and McCarthy want is radical. What Trump tried to give us – authoritarianism – is radical, especially in a democracy (which is why they want to destroy democracy).
Biden also leaned into taxes hard. He made no qualms about taxing the rich, none at all. He rejected any idea that taxing the rich was punitive or unfair, instead flipping things to where they should be, that is is unfair that the wealthiest 1% of the country avoiding paying a fair or any share of their income into a system from which they use way more to their advantage than all of us do. It is the wealthy shareholders of mass-logistic companies, the “new economy” delivery services, the rideshare industry, and mammoths like Amazon who directly benefit from our roads and bridges and stoplights and traffic cops, corporations that pay little to nothing to use them, putting all of the burden in paying for these things on us – or infrastructure is left to rot due to lack of money, which means shitty roads, which means our cars and bikes and buses and trains take on more damage riding over or through potholes and other defects born from decades of all of us dealing with austerity while the 1% feasts. Whew, that was a whopper of a sentence, but, damn if it and the case Biden made last night isn’t true. Biden’s message on taxes (which he fortunately copped from Sanders and Warren) is one that at least 60% of the country agrees with. Tax the fucking rich, starting with the Tech Pest.
Elon Musk made $140 billion in 2020. Serf-minded people say that Musk “earned” every penny of it, but let’s put things in perspective. If he worked a forty-hour work week for 52 weeks, his hourly wage would be $67,307,692.30/hour. If he worked an eighty-hour work week, his wage would be $33,653,846.15/hour. If he worked 24-hours a day every day of the year, his wage would be $15,981,735.15/hour. The only person worth $15.9 million an hour is someone who can solve the climate crisis, feed the world, stop war, make salted-licorice ice cream, cure hangovers, and put an end to Elon Musk…and that person is not Elon Musk.
We don’t know how much Musk pays in income tax – the info is private and he isn’t talking – however, we do know that he works hard to avoid paying his fair share. We also know that in 2019, Musk’s main business, Tesla, paid no taxes in 2019, thanks to tax credits not available to us, credits that made Musk’s serially non-profitable company stay afloat, at our expense.
I suppose if Musk used all the money he made for the public good…Ha! What am I talking about! Of course, he doesn’t help society with his money! He litterally burns his money up trying to send self-exploding rockets into space on a stupid ego-driven race to Mars. Hell, he had a perfect opportunity to invest money and cash in on the pandemic by investing in a vaccine or manufacturing PPE but he didn’t (we know he didn’t do anything, because if he did, he would have named the company something cutesy, ironic, and dad-edgy like The Sick Corporation). Instead, Musk made the pandemic worse by ranting against pandemic restrictions that were hurting his goal to be the world’s richest man. He forced his Fremont factory open against wishes of California and local health officials, selfishness that made his workers sick with COVID, and then fired those who refused to return to work because they didn’t want to expose themselves to the virus. In a year when more than 500,000 Americans died from COVID, millions were thrown out of jobs and many businesses were lost, Elon Musk chose to abandon the country for greed, using his money to boost his fragile ego and play boyish games. Tax the Tech Pest.
Back to Biden. The core of his first speech to Congress is exactly the right speech for the time and place America is at right now. We can quibble over details – how much or how little this or that program needs, what should have been mentioned but didn’t get run – however, on the whole, his words are a huge rhetorical step forward. Now we have to make sure that this stuff happens.
When Joe Biden was elected, the feeling most of us felt was relief. We figured that what we got in Biden is a sane and competent person who could get us out of the COVID ditch. None of us expected this President Joe Biden, which is a president much closer than what we imagined President Sanders or President Warren to be, rather than Obama II or, worse, another Bill Clinton. We expected Republican-Lite or Dem Centrism at best, and what we got is a no-shit progressive.
When I think about it, in hindsight, I am not surprised. I’ve been around and interviewed enough politicians to know that, Democrat or Republican, most have core beliefs that line up with their party’s traditions. However, politicians practice politics very carefully, almost cautiously. They worry a lot about getting reelected so that they can do, what in their eyes, is the best for the country. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a politician justify a compromise or not doing the right thing by saying, “I am much more valuable in office than our of office and if I don’t do this I won’t get reelected,” and every time they believe what they say.
Their worry drives them to focus on what polls say, instead of what people need. When the majority of the country wants something – good or bad – they go for it. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, politicians of both parties got “tough on crime,” including Joe Biden. Why? Not because draconianism was in their hearts (at least, not all of them) but because that is what America wanted at the time. In 1992, 2% of Americans thought we were too tough on crime, 83% thought we were not tough enough, 15% thought we were getting things just right. In 2020, 21% of Americans thought that we were too tough on crime, 41% not tough enough, 35% just right. Biden has always followed public opinion which is why he was “tough on crime” in the 1980s and 1990s and why he is for criminal justice reform and police reform now. Look at polls on other issues, including “tax and spend”, and you see similar shifts in public opinion and where politicians stand.
For Democrats – who are playing to the country – this means that the party shifts left. For Republicans – who are playing to their base – the GOP shift right. But, in each case, the parties are tracking with the people that they are trying to reach. There is one more thing: The parties respond to more than polls. They also look for who is active and where that action is. They take note of movement politics.
Over the last four years, the American Left has morphed into a broad-based movement. This came after a few decades of fractured activism and protests. I am referring to very important things like ACT-UP, Queer Nation, Earth First!, and the anti-war movement in the 1980s and 1990s; the anti-globalization movement and Occupy in the 2000s; and, more recently, NoDAPL, antifa, and the beginning of Black Lives Matter. All this led to the expansive, multi-issue, multi-tactical, diverse but united movement that coalesced four years ago around Muslim ban airport protests and the Women’s March.
As Trump continued to reveal more and more evil and bullshit, the public – especially the Left and progressive Democrats – started to frame things in much broader terms. We started hearing words like systemic more often and in more contexts, so that when #MeToo and Black Lives Matter came to the fore, we stopped focusing on individual cases of inhumanity and started framing all this stuff as not just systemic problems but a systemic problem, making connections between white supremacy, misogyny, heteronormative thinking, and other systems of oppression. And then we started communicating this analysis in words that most people understand and not lefty boom-boom-rah-rah talk or overwrought academic/specialized language. The fight became all of ours. This is why, when George Floyd was murdered, we – activists and the mainstream, anarchists and moms & dads – expressed our fight on the street.
One other thing happened: In 2015, Bernie Sanders decided to run for president as a protest to the Democratic Party’s centrism as represented by Hilary Clinton, as well as what was seen as her coronation. Early on, Sanders said that he was in it to win it – which is what candidates say – but up until the first Democratic primary debate many saw him as a “protest vote,” a soon-to-be also-ran, running a “not serious” educational campaign. His debate performance and the big bump he saw in the polls changed that perception. Suddenly, Sanders was seen and treated as a real contender – not just by the mainstream, but, more importantly, the Left.
Prior to the Sanders campaign, aside from some local and congressional races, the Left kept a distance from Democratic politics. The Bill Clinton crowd pushed the Left to the party’s margins. Many Leftist – present party included – pursued the third-party dead-end. Others sunk into cynicism or dropped out. The Sanders 2016 campaign changed things. Sanders’ performance openned the Left to the possibilities presented by electoral politics. Cynicism tempered, doubts receded, the people started to engage.
To the establishment, Sanders’ 2016 showing was more than respectable and proof that there was a large audience for progressive politics within the Democratic Party. Long time progressives within the party, such as Maxine Waters, started getting more notice in the mainstream. Others who had gotten some attention, like Elizabeth Warren, started getting even more. Dem-progs suddenly emerged from the closet. Moderate Democrats started sounding a bit more progressive. Left Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar came onto the scene, ran for office as no-excuses leftists and – gasp! – socialists, and won elections, not just in progressive districts but against longtime establishment Democratic office holders.
These politicians didn’t just happen. The party didn’t shift just because. Joe Biden didn’t go from “That’s not gonna fly, Jack” to what the mainstream and conservative press are calling Robin Hood Politics.
We made this happen. It was all of us that moved Joe Biden and Democratic politics to the left, and hopefully our nation, too. We stopped waiting to be led by “our leaders” and started leading them. That is the true essence of democracy.
Democracy: Demos is the village, the common people. Kratos is power. Power to the people. People power. It starts with us. It always has. We only need to realize that, act on that idea, and fight to make it reality. It is not an easy fight and it is one that will never end, but it is our fight and the time is now.