In his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy, famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” President Kennedy made that request at a time when the United States was prospering, and progress was benefitting many (with the notable exception of people of color.)
Six decades later, in his inaugural address on January 20, 2021, with the United States being an extremely divided nation in the midst of devastating economic and social turmoil, Joe Biden did not make a similar request. Instead, he told us what we must do for our country.
He called for unity among the citizenry, stating, “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural against urban, conservative against liberal.” And, after describing a series of nearly cataclysmic challenges, he declared, “Now, we must step up. All of us. It is a time for boldness, for there is much to do. And this is certain. We will be judged, you and I, for how we resolve the cascading crises of our time.”
In the now more than 100 days that Biden has been in the Oval Office, the progress on the boldness or crises management front has been substantial. The progress on the uncivil war or unity front has not. Let’s examine each in turn.
Boldness and the Build Back Better Agenda
Even though most view Joe Biden as a pragmatic moderate, he has definitely “stepped up” himself in terms of boldness since he has been president. He has demonstrated through his words, deeds, and plans that building back better was not a campaign slogan nor an idle promise. It has been a pledge to perform which has been honored through the introduction of the Build Back Better Agenda (Agenda).
The Agenda has been advanced with the recognition that government is not the problem. Government can be a problem solver. Specifically, the federal government can play a lead role in stimulating the revitalization of the nation’s economy and democracy
The Agenda is comprised of three plans: the American Rescue Plan, the American Jobs Plan (aka Infrastructure Plan), and the American Families Plan. Together, those plans total more than $6 trillion.
The Rescue Plan to combat the pandemic, and to support those who had not received much assistance in the earlier stimulus rounds, was signed into law on March 11. Biden introduced the Jobs Plan on March 31 as an “investment program” directed at creating millions of jobs, rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure (physical and human), and positioning the U.S. to outcompete China. He introduced the Families Plan in his first address to a joint session of Congress on April 28.
The Families Plan is by far the most innovative of these three plans. If funded and implemented as presented, it would be a game changer.
A White House briefing room release states that the Families Plan “…is an investment in our children and families — helping families cover the basic expenses that so many struggle with now by lowering health insurance premiums, and continuing the American Rescue Plan’s historic reductions in child poverty.”
Among other elements, the Families Plan includes provisions for: universal pre-school for all three- and four-year olds; free community college; direct support to cover child care costs and improve the quality of the child care and the child care workforce; paid leave; and tax cuts for American families and workers.
The American Rescue Plan, which has become law, received no Republican votes in either the Senate or the House. It appears there will be little to no Republican support for either the Jobs Plan or the Families Plan, unless those plans are modified substantially to be less extensive and expensive.
On May 12, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met in the White House with Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to discuss the infrastructure and families plan. The bulk of the 90-minute meeting was devoted to discussing infrastructure.
It is reported that in the meeting McConnell and McCarthy objected to the broad definition of infrastructure, the size of the Plan, and using tax increases on the wealthy and businesses to pay for the proposed spending. There was no tangible progress during the meeting, but it appeared there might be some room for compromise going forward.
Biden followed up his May 12 meeting with a May 13 meeting with Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), who is leading the infrastructure negotiations for the Republicans and five of her senatorial colleagues. There were “good faith” discussions and the President indicated he was “willing to compromise.” No substantive agreements were reached, however.
Time will tell over the next few weeks or so whether there is a path forward for an acceptable bipartisan solution on these plans. Given the current relations between the parties, and the distance they are apart on the scope and size of these plans, that will be difficult.
This may not matter because President Biden continues to advance the ambitious Democratic policy agenda. This has made it obvious he is focusing on appealing to the people, rather than the politicians. And given his emphasis on paying for his plans with money from the wealthy and big corporations, it is also apparent that he is reaching out to the gals and guys walking down Main Street rather than the fat cats on Wall Street.
The Biden approach is resonating with his target audience. The most recent AP/NORC poll, conducted between April 29-May 3, after Biden’s first 100 days in office, released on May 10 reveals that “Biden continues to hold high approval ratings.” 63% of those surveyed approved of Biden’s handling of the job as president. His highest approval ratings were on handling the coronavirus pandemic — 71%, health care — 62%, the economy — 57%, and foreign policy — 54%.
Unity Remains an Aspiration
As might be expected, in these extremely polarized times, there were huge differences between the approval ratings given to Biden by the Democratic and Republican respondents to the AP/NORC poll, however. For example, 96% of Democrats approve of how Joe Biden is handling his job as president, compared to 23% of Republicans.
This polarization nationally is reflected starkly at the local level as well. In an Instapoll, Congressman Vern Buchanan (R-FL) asked the constituents of his district, “What grade would you give President Biden for his first 100 days in office?”
37.86% gave Biden an “A”. 39.54% gave him an “F”. The congressman didn’t ask the respondents to identify their political party in his poll. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist, though, to determine which voters gave Biden the A’s and which gave him the F’s.
The polar opposite ratings show the extent of the extreme partisan divide that exists and will continue to do so, most likely for decades. That is not a pessimistic assessment, but a realistic one.
The reason for that assessment, as we wrote in a blog on trust in January of 2020, is that, “The partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans has become a chasm on policy issues and has also contributed to highly negative perceptions of those in the opposite party.”
The Pew Research Center is the definitive source of information on trust and the views of Republicans and Democrats. In a report issued early in 2019, Pew observed that “twenty years ago, and even as recently as 2014, the top priorities of Democrats and Republicans were much more aligned than they are today.”
Another Pew study released in October 2019 disclosed that Democrats and Republicans did agree on one thing — that they can’t agree. 73% of those partisans surveyed said, “On important issues facing the country, most Republican voters and Democratic voters not only disagree over plans and policies, but also cannot agree on basic facts.”
This same study showed that 75% of the Democrats surveyed said that Republicans are more close-minded than most Americans. And 63% of the Republicans surveyed said that Democrats are more unpatriotic than most Americans.
A Pew survey released in March of this year shows the chasm has deepened. Its findings include:
- 72% of Republicans and 81% of Democrats say the phrase “governs in an honest and ethical way” describes their own party somewhat or very well. By contrast, only 15% of Republicans and 17% of Democrats say this describes the other party.
- 81% of Republican and 88% of Democrats say the phrase “respects democratic institutions and traditions” describes their own party somewhat or very well. While “about two in ten” say this about the other party.
- “Most Republicans (56%) say critics of Trump should not be accepted in the GOP, while most Democrats say their party should be accepting of Biden critics.”
The Need to Carry On
Given these dramatic differences in perceptions and perspectives, should Biden proceed with his comprehensive set of plans to build back better and his push for more unity? Will it make a difference?
In our opinion, the answer on both counts is an unequivocal yes.
The Build Back Better agenda is essential for moving this country forward to becoming a more perfect union. It addresses the devastation that has been wrought by the pandemic, as well as the inequality and inequity that has persisted, and in some instances increased, through the decades. It also focuses on improving the conditions and providing opportunity for those individuals, groups, and communities that have been most disadvantaged in this twenty-first century.
Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof concurs with the need to build back better. In his May 2 New York Times op-ed, Kristof noted “For half a century, compared with other countries, we have underinvested in our people.” Kristof observes that before the 1970’s, Democrats and Republicans alike invested in infrastructure and human capital, but that is no longer the case. He closes this piece by stating, ‘The question today is not whether we can afford to make massive investments in our people. It’s whether we can afford not to.”
We cannot afford not to. We also cannot afford not to work diligently to unify this divided nation. We must persevere.
No one knows or understands this better than President Joe Biden, and no one will work harder to try to bring it about.
In his inaugural address, Biden said:
To overcome these challenges — to restore the soul and to secure the future of America — requires more than words.
It requires the most elusive of things in a democracy: unity. Unity.
In another January in Washington, on New Year’s Day 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. When he put the pen to paper, the President said, “If my name ever goes down into history it will be for this act and my whole soul is in it.”
Biden went on to say,
My whole soul is in it. Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this. Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation. I ask every American to join in this cause.
Every American has not and many Americans will not. They will not cross the aisle. They will never change their mind or compromise. They will not search for common ground. They will not comprehend the dire consequences of conflict with, and condemnation of, their fellow citizens.
They will not hear or heed these words from Abraham Lincoln:
At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reaches us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.
On the other hand, there will be those concerned citizens who hear and heed Lincoln’s admonition. Realizing that our democracy is on the eve of destruction, they will join the cause.
They will become part of a citizen’s brigade not to go to war with each other, but to fight for unity and to build back better. They will do so because they recognize that this war will be won by citizens and not politicians. They will do so with the full understanding that working for unity and building back better will be a long hard slog and require a commitment to carry on.
They will not be summer soldiers and sunshine patriots who, in this time of crisis, shrink from their service. They will stand up for unity and building back better …and for that they will deserve the love and thanks of man and woman. (With thanks to Thomas Paine, in borrowing his words from “The Crisis” written on December 23, 1776)
Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.