Media coverage of the fight over a pair of infrastructure bills—one physical, one social—has become so chaotic that the truth is getting lost amid a cacophony of arguments over price tags and party factions.
What’s happening in Washington is not a D.C.-insider argument between West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Or between Arizona Senator Krysten Sinema and the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair, Washington Representative Pramila Jayapal.
It is not a fight over whether $3.5 trillion in new federal spending is too much or too little.
This is a fight between Big Pharma and the tens of millions of Americans who are burdened by excessive drug costs. This is a fight between a billionaire class that does not want to pay its fair share and the hundreds of millions of Americans whose lives would dramatically improve if the federal government prioritized human needs over corporate greed.
This is a fight between the profiteers and the people.
And the profiteers are getting the upper hand. President Biden signaled Tuesday that he was willing to substantially reduce the $3.5 trillion package in order to get the support of Manchin, Sinema, and other so-called dissenting Democrats.
Bad move. The $3.5 trillion figure is already a compromise downward from what Democrats should be delivering to address historic inequities and the pressing needs of a country that’s still wrestling with a pandemic.
Instead of downsizing the Democratic agenda, the president should be selling it.
If Biden frames this struggle as what it really is—a battle with the powerful interests that maintain a corrupt status quo, and with members of Congress who serve those interests—he still has a chance to build the support that’s needed to enact all or most of what’s been proposed. The final figure might be less than $3.5 trillion, but it doesn’t have to go anywhere near as low as the $1.5 trillion, or less, that Manchin has proposed.
For that to happen, however, Biden must fully utilize the bully pulpit that remains the most powerful political tool afforded US presidents.
Biden needs to speak directly to the people about what’s been proposed, why it matters, and why the billionaire class is resisting it. Instead of accepting cuts that he does not want and that will weaken the ability of Democrats to deliver on 2020 campaign promises, he should be asking what those who say the social infrastructure bill is too costly would cut. Expansion of Medicare to cover the vision, dental, and hearing needs of the elderly? Funding for the caregiving that keeps seniors and people with disabilities in their homes? Paid family and medical leave? A permanent child tax credit to fight poverty? Free community college for working-class students? A Climate Corps to provide jobs and hope for saving the planet?
Biden should ask these questions in a live, prime-time address to the country. This is what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did when he used “Fireside Chats” to argue for Social Security and the New Deal. This is what President Lyndon Johnson did when he used televised addresses to stand up for civil rights and voting rights—as well as Medicare and Medicaid.
Then, Biden must go to key states, as FDR and LBJ did, beginning with Manchin’s West Virginia and Sinema’s Arizona. The people need to hear directly from their president about the high-stakes moment we are in, and how to get out of it.
The president will need to step out of his comfort zone, to speak blunt truths that will offend political allies and donors. But that is the price of victory, and if Biden is not prepared to pay that price, then his will be a failed presidency.
What Biden, a student of history, must remember is that this is the strategy that made it possible for previous Democratic presidents to unify the party and advance audacious agendas. It worked before and can work again—even in these media-saturated and -disrupted times.
To make it work, however, Biden must push beyond the inside-the-Beltway politics that so enthralls cable TV pundits. He has to do what’s not been done enough: make the case for his far-reaching social infrastructure plan that has the unfortunate label of “the budget reconciliation bill” or, worse yet, “the $3.5 trillion spending bill.” He should speak in human terms, utilizing all of his skills for empathy and personal connection to build support for an approach that links the two bills and assures their passage. And he should speak in political terms, acknowledging the struggles within the Democratic Party that have stalled his agenda. He doesn’t have to attack Manchin and Sinema by name. Everyone will get the point if the president explains why it is wrong to deny dental care to retirees in West Virginia and to make college unaffordable for working-class kids in Arizona.
Above all, Biden must talk about why proposals overwhelmingly favored by the American people are not already law. He has to explain that Big Pharma does not want to be forced to negotiate lower drug prices, and that billionaires do not want to pay their share of taxes. He should talk about the money that the pharmaceutical industry and billionaire donors contribute to politicians in both parties, and about the lobbying power of those who oppose regulations and taxes. Then he should pull it all together with an argument that this is the time to demand that members of Congress answer the question: “Which side are you on?”
In one of his recent videos, Reich explains everything the social infrastructure bill will do for families, for the elderly, for young people seeking education. He then says, “All of these are to be financed by higher taxes on the rich and big corporations. The bill would also increase the Internal Revenue Service’s funding so the agency can properly audit wealthy tax cheats, who fail to report about a fifth of their income annually, thereby costing the government $175 billion per year. But, of course, lobbyists for big corporations and the rich are fighting all this tooth and nail.”
On television and in person, Biden can borrow from Sanders, who says, “Let me be as clear as I can be. The budget reconciliation bill is paid for. How will that happen? We will finally end the days of tax loopholes and evasions by the billionaire class of this country. Yes, they will finally pay their fair share of taxes.” He can borrow from Jayapal, who says, “We will not allow this process to be dictated by special interests and corporations at the expense of women, working families, and our communities. We will not leave anyone behind.”
Or the 46th president can borrow from the 32nd president, who warned that “government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.” It was FDR who declared, “I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match.”
If Biden communicates to the American people that this is what the fight is about, he will transform the debate in the way that is necessary. Instead of an argument among Democrats about how to fund spending plans, this can become an epic battle between the billionaire class and a president who is prepared to fight the elites on behalf of an American majority that is sick and tired of having its dreams sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed.