“We the People”

The question of whether our democracy will long endure is both ancient and urgent, as old as our republic, still vital today? 

Our Constitution opens to the words, as trite as it sounds, “We the people.” It’s time we remembered that “We the people” are the government. You and I. Not some force in a distant capital. Not some powerful force that we have no control over. It’s us. It’s “We the people.”

President Joe Biden, address to a joint session of Congress, April 28, 2021*

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Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

President Joe Biden struck two overarching and linked themes in his Wednesday night speech: Can democracy endure in the face of domestic and autocratic foreign foes? And, what is the nature of government in the 21st century?

The president condemned domestic terrorism forcefully and by name: “White supremacy is terrorism,” Biden said, promising that his administration — unlike that of his predecessor — will not ignore this danger to democracy. Foreign enemies, he noted, also pose a threat to the success of the American democratic experiment. “America’s adversaries, the autocrats of the world, are betting” against democracy. “They are wrong,” Biden forcefully stressed. “You know it, I know it. But we have to prove them wrong. We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works, and we can deliver for our people.”

An activist government is the linchpin — the linkage — between Biden’s themes: Facing down the autocratic threat and proving that democracy still works. For Biden, “We the people” are the government in American democracy. “We the people” mean all the people. And, to demonstrate that he intends to govern in the interests of all the people, Biden took both a victory lap, touting the successes of his administration in its first 100 days and proposed a bold agenda for further action in the months ahead to haul the nation into the 21st century and keep it competitive with both America’s friends and foes.

“We’ve stared into the abyss of insurrection and autocracy, pandemic and pain, and ‘We the people’ did not flinch,” the president asserted. “America is on the move again,” he touted, citing his administration’s success in delivering over 220 million COVID-19 vaccine shots into people’s arms and passing the American Rescue Plan that delivered much-needed money to most Americans, aided struggling citizens with food and rent money, and created more than 1,300,000 new jobs. When Biden announced that the stimulus package contains provisions that will cut the rate of child poverty in half, the Republicans in the chamber sat on their hands. (Are they in favor of child poverty?)

Biden touted his previously unveiled infrastructure plan, claiming that most of its provisions — from repairing and building roads and bridges to combating climate change — are really job creation programs. And, he used Wednesday night’s speech to formally announce his American Families Plan, an ambitious proposal to expand publicly funded schooling by an additional four years. Two of the additional years would make universal preschool available for 3- and 4-year-olds, and the other two would provide free community college. The proposal also expands federal assistance for those who attend four-year colleges, and it calls for 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. “We’re one of the few industrial countries in the world” that still forces people “to choose between a job and a paycheck or taking care of themselves or their loved ones,” Biden noted. 

The president’s proposals — including the stimulus and infrastructure plans and the just-announced American Families Plan — represent a bold expansion of the federal government. His agenda marks a departure from four decades of subservience to the Reaganite proposition — announced in President Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural Address — that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Subsequent administrations — Democratic and Republican — subscribed to this notion.

But, no more! President Biden is reviving the legacy of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom he cited, to promote an activist government that governs in the interests of “We the people.” None of this comes cheaply. Biden proposes paying for his multi-trillion dollar plans by taxing the rich — both individuals and corporations. “I will not impose any tax increase on people making less than $400,000,” he vowed.  

The Biden programs are costly — and will be hard to pass. Republicans theoretically might support parts of the infrastructure package — particularly money to build and repair roads and bridges — but no Republicans signed onto the American Rescue Plan and none are likely to vote for the American Families Plan. Republicans argue Biden’s agenda is too expensive, expands government too much, and raises taxes on the rich — which Republicans just cut and will never support.

Lacking Republican backing, Biden has to rely on a united Democratic Party. Moderates within the party are put off by the price tag for the American Families Plan. The 50-50 split in the Senate means that Democratic moderates — like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia — hold sway over what eventually passes — if anything. Officials in the administration say Biden is “open to hearing” other ideas, Washington-speak for “let’s negotiate.”

Even if only a small part of the infrastructure plan passes and little or none of the American Families Plan gets through, Biden already has succeeded in changing the nation’s conversation. His approval ratings are high, and public support for his programs is even higher. One poll found more than two-thirds of Americans favor Biden’s infrastructure plan and his tax hikes on the rich. And, a CNN poll, conducted after Biden’s speech, showed that 73 percent said his agenda makes them feel optimistic that the nation is moving in the right direction.

In just over three months, President Biden has won wide support for a renewed activist government. Opposing a popular president whose agenda is even more popular may not be a winning ticket for obstructionist Republicans. And, Republican support for the foes of democracy — like Russia’s Vladimir Putin abroad and insurrectionists at home — may prove detrimental to the party’s prospects as an activist government provides an answer to Biden’s question about the future of democracy.

Yes, democracy is still vital today, because democracy is “We the people” governing actively in the interest of all Americans. On Wednesday night, President Biden affirmed his determination to make this so. 

Posted April 30, 2021

*All quotations from President Biden’s speech are from this transcript by The New York Times.

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