Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Abraham Joshua Heschel: A life of Radical Amazement.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
President Joe Biden is getting closer to another major victory in what could be a legislative hat trick to round out his first year in office. After House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy delayed a vote in the lower chamber with an eight-hour speech last night, Democrats passed the Build Back Better Act, which is now expected to undergo major revisions in the Senate.
Democrats, who have a razor-thin majority in the upper chamber, will have to see if they can get Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema on board. Although the Congressional Budget Office issued a better-than-expected score which should help ease any reservations the two moderate senators might have about the overall cost, it is still far from clear whether Democrats can seal the deal.
Passing the legislation would count as a landmark achievement. The $1.9 trillion bill would drastically expand the social safety net and help fight climate change by providing subsidies for health care and childcare, free and universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, along with new tax credits for clean energy, investments in electric vehicles, and funding for environmental conservation. The bill will would also allow the federal government to negotiate the prices of prescription drugs for older Americans on Medicare, provide new and improved affordable housing, include subsidies to make high-speed internet more accessible – and more.
If the legislation passes, Biden will be able to tout the Build Back Better Act, the American Rescue Plan and the $1 trillion infrastructure bill to join the ranks of the few Democrats since FDR who have been able to expand the role of the federal government in American life. In a sharp rebuke of Reaganism, Biden is building on the liberal legacy that stipulates government is essential to a healthy and equitable marketplace.
There are many reasons why President Biden has struggled politically in recent months. When it comes to the administration’s problems with messaging, its reticence may be an overcorrection after the Trump era. Given that so many Americans grew tired of the onslaught of tweets, announcements and reports covering the turbulence in the White House under Trump, Biden may have initially chosen to step back from the limelight, working behind closed doors to try to focus on the challenges of governing. This strategy proved to be effective at the start of Biden’s presidency, since it created the perception that the federal government was operating smoothly.
But when pushing for big legislative initiatives, telling stories is part of what presidents do. Whenever the great Democratic presidents have successfully expanded the role of our government, they sold these laws to the American people as a way to address the major concerns of the day. Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was an effort to address one of the worst economic crises in US history, offering workers and farmers a new social safety net that would ensure the bottom would not again fall out for average Americans. Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” was an effort to use the growing wealth of this country to make the nation better than it had ever been by grappling with perennial challenges of poverty, racism, and inadequate education.
It wasn’t just that Roosevelt or Johnson had pithy catchphrases—those alone, as Harry Truman learned with the “Fair Deal” are not enough to guarantee success. It was the ability of these presidents to connect the dots between their proposals and the most pertinent concerns of the era in order to make a compelling case to the American people that these legislative packages were critical to the country’s future.
For Americans in 2021, nothing comes close to the pandemic and the problems it exposed and exacerbated. The nation and the world, lived through one of the most traumatic and unsettling crises of recent decades. Covid-19 ravaged the world and inflicted an enormous death toll while upending our way of life, widening racial and economic disparities, and inflicting a psychological toll that could have a lasting impact on people for years to come. While we are all focused on returning to some semblance of normality as soon as possible, the notion that we can simply move on or that the damage of the pandemic can easily be undone is shortsighted.
Joe Biden won the 2020 election over Donald Trump for many reasons, one of which was a desperate desire for efficient and coherent leadership that could help us all climb out of the desperate state the pandemic put us in. As Biden tries to push his capstone legislation toward final passage by Christmas, he has to come back to this basic concern. Too often, Biden has not done enough to explain how his legislative push is as integral to our country’s recovery as the vaccine rollout.
In the last few days, the administration has finally started to push back against inflation hawks by explaining how the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better package would actually reduce basic costs for American families. But he needs to do more by laying out what’s in these bills and how they’ll make a positive impact on millions of Americans. Lowering the cost of health care and child care while providing support for caregiving jobs, for example, addresses longstanding problems that came to the forefront during the pandemic. More aggressive efforts to deal with climate change is also part of how we avoid another global crisis from unfolding.
The more Biden can do to explain how his agenda addresses the Covid-19 pandemic and how his policies will make us more resilient going forward, the more pressure he can exert on Senators Manchin and Sinema to finally join the rest of their party in moving forward with this historic legislation.