Last night, President Biden addressed a joint session of Congress, although only a fraction of the members and a few guests and the press were present because of COVID limits on large indoor gatherings.
The real intended audience, though, is the American public among whom the president’s speech was well-received. A CBS/YouGov poll found 85% approval among Americans who watched the speech.
For me, it was easy to see why.
For over forty years, the federal government has been characterized as an obstacle rather than a solution to the problems everyday Americans face. We were told that tax cuts for wealthy corporations and individuals would “trickle down” to create more jobs, that spending on public projects was wasteful “pork barrel”, that our education and health systems were unparalleled, that hard work led to personal prosperity, that is was okay for Republican administrations to run huge deficits – in part to wage unfunded wars – but not for Democratic administrations.
Although many of us understood that the country was in trouble before the pandemic, 2020 revealed the weak state of our national government and the precariousness of most people’s lives. It showed the nation how dependent we are on what are now called essential workers, most of whom are poorly paid and who often don’t have even basic benefits like paid sick leave and health insurance. We saw the rates of illness and death, staggering in and of themselves, disproportionately higher among people of color and those in the lowest socioeconomic circumstances. We saw that most of our school buildings could not be made safe for staff and students and that many students and families did not have the proper resources available for remote learning. We saw our medical systems pushed beyond their limits. We saw vast inequality in outcomes among states because the Trump administration refused to lead in a time of national and international crisis.
I could go on but I think that this sets the stage for those who may not be familiar with life in the US.
After a major presidential address to Congress, the opposition party gives a response. Last night, this task fell to Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. He claimed that, as Biden was inaugurated on January 20th, the nation was on the upswing. If the Republican leadership truly believes that, they are delusional. January 20th was only two weeks after the insurrection that breached the Capitol building where they meet for the first time in over 200 years. The country suffered 4,380 COVID deaths on January 20th, on its way to what would become the deadliest month of the pandemic in the US to date.
The country was in a fragile, precarious state.
One hundred days of competent and compassionate national leadership makes a huge difference.
Experiencing that change is what made Biden’s speech so popular and, more importantly, what makes his policy proposals and how to pay for them popular, as well. The American people want good transportation systems, water/sewer systems, electrical grid, communication systems, and fast internet service. They want high-quality affordable health care. They want a strong education system available to everyone regardless of where they live. They want high-quality care for children, elders, and anyone who is sick or vulnerable. They want to be treated with dignity. They want to live in safety. They want to be paid wages that can support themselves and their families in the present and that enable them to save for the future.
They see other advanced democracies manage to do those things, while the United States has been falling behind. Instead, wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the top 1% of individuals and corporations, some of whom pay their executives huge sums while some of their employees need public assistance programs to have enough to eat and to pay rent. Many of the wealthiest people make most of their income from investments rather than from salaries, so they pay tax at a much lower rate.
This is why the Biden proposals to raise revenue from the highest income earners are popular with the public. All of the revenue for the programs would be raised from those with income over $400,000. The changes in the capital gains rates would only impact those over $1,000,000 in income. There is also a proposal to increase audits for high-income earners and to make it harder to avoid income taxes by using off-shore tax shelters. The corporate tax rate which was slashed by the Republicans in the 2017 tax bill would rise, although not to the level it was before that bill was passed.
This all strikes most Americans as fair.
We are in a bizarre situation where many Republican voters and local/state officeholders are in favor of Biden’s proposals but Republican members of Congress are opposed. The national Republican party is beholden to rich donors and is going to need to decide if they want to get on board and seriously negotiate with Democrats on these bills and then support the final product to benefit the people of their districts or if they are going to obstruct everything the Democrats try to do.
Now is the time that each member of Congress needs to remember that they are sworn to uphold the Constitution and are there to serve the people, not their party leadership.
It’s time to fulfill their promise in the Preamble to “promote the general welfare.”