The United States is a big country with big challenges that demand big expenditures and big doses of political courage. The issues we face are both complex and interrelated: combating a year-long pandemic; rescuing the nation from its second fiscal crisis in the last two decades; combating the existential crisis of climate change; repairing and rebuilding our physical, economic, education and social infrastructures; restoring the financial underpinning of both the American people and American businesses; and rebuilding our international relationships.
On the surface, the list might seem daunting, However, what we face is not a set of discrete issues in which competing advocacy groups fight each other for attention. It is, rather, one issue with many inextricably interrelated components. For instance, the economic challenges will not be met unless the pandemic is controlled. To do this requires solid science backed by American industry and statesman-like political leaders. Rebuilding the economy will require massive investments in the multiple aspects of infrastructure restoration—physical and social. This, in turn, requires schools to reopen for children so parents can return to work, which in turn will boost the economic wellbeing of businesses and millions of people. And all of this will be for naught unless we aggressively deal with the global climate crisis.
Take Off the Blinders
I believe that American political leaders can meet the challenges, but first they need to take off their ideological blinders and take bold action. And those who do this should waste no time trying to pacify colleagues who put their own political lust for power ahead of what is good for America.
None of this is new news. The administrations of Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump have all tried to tackle pieces of the same problems we are faced with today. In my 2013 book, The Idea of America, I wrote that combating the multiple economic and social problems we faced “is a daunting task though not an impossible one. I am neither an economist nor am I a fiscal analyst but the crux of the problem seems simple to me. We know what we have to do.”
Yet, I wrote, we fail to do what needs to be done: come together, negotiate, compromise and make consensus decisions. “This failure is not due to a dearth of solutions, or because the suggested solutions are too complex and illusive. The failure is in our politics; specifically, it is that our political leaders choose to fight for narrow ideological agendas that reward small slices of America rather than for the good of the nation as a whole.”
Trapped in Groundhog Day
Alas, eight years later, we are still suffering from the plight of rabid partisanship. Many of our Republican congressional leaders ignite battles to pit Americans against each other instead of uniting the country. Their eyes are firmly set on the 2022 midterm elections (and their politics firmly aimed at discrediting the president and their Democratic colleagues), not on the pain and suffering of their constituents.
It seems to me that we are trapped in the Groundhog Day movie. When the Barack Obama administration took office in 2009 it was clear that a massive federal investment was needed to restore the economy. The president and Congressional Democrats responded with an $831 billion package. The bill was enacted, but the final vote in the Senate included zero votes from Republicans. This became the story of Obama’s time in office: Republicans refused to support anything he proposed—from healthcare to infrastructure investments—and then they condemned him for being overly partisan.
But bipartisanship rose up briefly in 2020, and despite veto threat from the president, Republicans and Democrats in Congress successfully pressed forward with a $1.4 trillion coronavirus stimulus package.
By the time President Joe Biden was inaugurated in January 2021 it was clear that more Congressional action was required. Leadership and funds were desperately needed to increase the production and distribution of vaccines; to combat the continued economic disaster faced by many small businesses; to help the millions of people who were out of work and in danger of losing their homes; to rebuild the crumbling national infrastructure; to address the financial plight of states and cities; and to financially aid schools so that they can reopen their classrooms.
The Republicans’ Greatest Fear
The administration and the Democrats in the House of Representatives quickly passed a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill—but, again, with no Republican votes. The Senate Republicans also opposed the initiative, even though it had overwhelming support from the American people (68% of all Americans, including 53% of Republicans). It was the largest infusion of federal assistance since the Great Depression and it became law with zero Republican votes in the House and zero Republican votes in the Senate. And, as they did in the Obama era, Republicans tried to blame the president for their own blatant partisanship.
President Biden understands that the success of this initiative is tainted by the lock-step Republican opposition. He also understands that the bill addresses only a piece of the interlocking problems he must address. The Republican response remains one of obstruction, and their solution is to severely restrict voting rights in the hope that a reduced electorate will return them to power. That, it seems to me, is their single issue. I urge President Biden and the Democratic leaders to move forward aggressively. Success of the “Build Back Better” initiative will restore the nation’s crucial infrastructures. It will also restore the American people’s faith in their government, which I believe is the Republicans’ greatest fear.