Charles P. Pierce — Then and Now: Ronald Reagan vs. Joe Biden.
On Wednesday night, the president gave a speech in which he re-imagined American politics. It must have been startling to anyone whose political awareness began at any point after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in 1981. If we violate strict pundit protocol and refer to the president’s speech on Wednesday as a de facto State of the Union address, it’s helpful to compare it to Reagan’s “address to Congress” that he delivered in February, a month after having been inaugurated.
(Of course, Reagan was allowed to assume the office without having Jimmy Carter try to overturn the result by inciting a bloodthirsty Carterite mob to storm the Capitol. You have to be of a certain political vintage to realize how funny the phrase “bloodthirsty Carterite mob” is.)
Reagan’s speech was billed as a plan for economic recovery, one of the two major planks in his campaign, the other being Carter’s handling of the Iranian hostage crisis. Reagan and his people, including the supply-side fanatics on his economic team, believed that the condition of the economy as the 1970s ended gave them license for a wholesale gutting of the economic order that had prevailed since Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932. The oligarchs of the day were perfectly fine with the whole notion because they knew, as David Stockman told the late William Greider in The Atlantic, that the first supply-side budget was “a Trojan horse to bring down the top rate.”
In any event, Reagan’s speech drew up his economic recovery plan as clearly as the president’s did this week. As such, we can see clearly the changes wrought by the past four years of pandemic, and chaos, and criminality.
REAGAN: This plan is aimed at reducing the growth in government spending and taxing, reforming and eliminating regulations which are unnecessary and unproductive or counterproductive, and encouraging a consistent monetary policy aimed at maintaining the value of the currency. If enacted in full, this program can help America create 13 million new jobs, nearly 3 million more than we would have without these measures. It will also help us to gain control of inflation.
It’s important to note that we’re only reducing the rate of increase in taxing and spending. We’re not attempting to cut either spending or taxing levels below that which we presently have. This plan will get our economy moving again, [create] productivity growth, and thus create the jobs that our people must have.
And I’m asking that you join me in reducing direct Federal spending by $41.4 billion in fiscal year 1982, and this goes along with another $7.7 billion in user fees and off-budget savings for a total of $49.1 billion. And this will still allow an increase of $40.8 billion over 1981 spending.
BIDEN: Universal public schools and college aid opened wide the doors of opportunity. Scientific breakthroughs took us to the moon. Now we’re on Mars, discovering vaccines, gave us the Internet and so much more. These are investments we made together as one country. And investments that only the government was in a position to make. Time and again, they propel us into the future. That’s why I propose the American Jobs Plan, a once-in-a-generation investment in America itself. This is the largest jobs plan since World War II.
It creates jobs to upgrade our transportation infrastructure. Jobs modernizing our roads, bridges, highways. Jobs building ports and airports, rail corridors, transit lines. It’s clean water. And today, up to 10 million homes in America and more than 400,000 schools and child care centers have pipes with lead in them, including drinking water, a clear and present danger to our children’s health. The American Jobs Plan creates jobs replacing 100 percent of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines so every American can drink clean water.
Look, the American Jobs Plan will help millions of people get back to their jobs and back to their careers. Two million women have dropped out of the work force during this pandemic. Two million. And too often, because they couldn’t get the care they needed to care for their child or care for an elderly parent who needs help; 800,000 families are on the Medicare waiting list right now to get home care for their aging parent or loved one with disability. If you think it’s not important, check out in your own district, Democrat or Republican. Democrat or Republican voters.
REAGAN: All in all, nearly $216 billion worth of programs providing help for tens of millions of Americans will be fully funded. But government will not continue to subsidize individuals or particular business interests where real need cannot be demonstrated. And while we will reduce some subsidies to regional and local governments, we will at the same time convert a number of categorical grant programs into block grants to reduce wasteful administrative overhead and to give local governments and States more flexibility and control. We call for an end in duplication to Federal programs and reform of those which are not cost-effective.
BIDEN: The pandemic has only made things worse. Twenty million Americans lost their job in the pandemic, working- and middle-class Americans. At the same time, roughly 650 billionaires in America saw their net worth increase by more than $1 trillion, in the same exact period. Let me say it again. 650 people increased their wealth by more than $1 trillion during this pandemic and they’re now worth more than $4 trillion. My fellow Americans, trickle-down, trickle-down economics has never worked. It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom and the middle out.
REAGAN: The substance and prosperity of our nation is built by wages brought home from the factories and the mills, the farms, and the shops. They are the services provided in 10,000 corners of America; the interest on the thrift of our people and the returns for their risk-taking. The production of America is the possession of those who build, serve, create, and produce.
For too long now, we’ve removed from our people the decisions on how to dispose of what they created. We’ve strayed from first principles. We must alter our course. The taxing power of government must be used to provide revenues for legitimate government purposes. It must not be used to regulate the economy or bring about social change. We’ve tried that, and surely we must be able to see it doesn’t work.
Spending by government must be limited to those functions which are the proper province of government. We can no longer afford things simply because we think of them. Next year we can reduce the budget by $41.4 billion, without harm to government’s legitimate purposes or to our responsibility to all who need our benevolence.
BIDEN: We have to do more than just build back better—than just build back, we have to build back better. We have to compete more strenuously than we have. Throughout our history, if you think about it, public investment in infrastructure has literally transformed America, our attitudes as well as our opportunities. The transcontinental railroad, interstate highways, united two oceans and brought a totally new age of progress to the United States of America.
Universal public schools and college aid opened wide the doors of opportunity. Scientific breakthroughs took us to the moon. Now we’re on Mars, discovering vaccines, gave us the internet and so much more. These are investments we made together as one country. And investments that only the government was in a position to make. Time and again, they propel us into the future. That’s why I propose the American Jobs Plan, a once-in-a-generation investment in America itself. This is the largest jobs plan since World War II.
What the president proposed on Wednesday comes as anything new to voters of a certain age—like, well, mine. It is the logic and the foundation of the New Deal, the Square Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society. Hell, even if you liked Ike, it’s the logic of the Interstate Highway System. Even if you thought Nixon was The One, it’s the logic of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act. That was the sotto voce consensus of my growing up, when my father got the GI Bill for grad school and many of my neighbors got GI mortgages to buy their homes, and when my father’s pension from the Navy kept going up so often that he called the VA to make sure he wasn’t profiting from some weird sort of clerical error. It was a democratic-small-d consensus of promise and commitment and, if the systemic racism of the country denied too many citizens of that promise and that commitment, well, we were working on that, too. As historian Eric Rauchway observes in his excellent new book about the New Deal, democracy is not simply a mechanism for picking leaders, but also something that should animate every aspect of the society. That was the instinct of the government under which I was born.
Reagan blew that up, for Democrats and Republicans alike. It began a long period of distrust and retrenchment and, in modern drag, many of the policies that got Roosevelt elected in the first place. For too long, the Democratic Party seemed overly willing to accept this paradigm of skepticism, an attitude that reached its peak when Democratic President Bill Clinton told the Congress that “The era of big government is over.” That was extraordinarily premature, as anyone of a certain age could have told him.
Doonesbury — All shot up.