In his appearance before a joint session of Congress Wednesday night, President Biden sought to answer Americans’ questions about what direction he intends to steer the country. But Mr. Biden’s speech, less a State of the Union Address than a statement about what kind of union he envisions, left three broader, more consequential, questions unanswered.
Indeed, it is the answers to these questions that will define not only the course of the Biden years, but also the Biden legacy and the shape of the country in the post-Biden era. These questions are the hardy perennials of American civic life and are particularly germane to Mr. Biden’s unusual passage from Senate utility infielder to dugout skipper. Taken together, they are vital to understanding the Biden presidency and this moment in our history. Here are those questions and some possible answers:
— Is Mr. Biden a leader or a follower?
This much is beyond debate: The president leads with his heart. But he follows advice, polls and his own instincts. No student of the Biden oeuvre in Washington, if that phrase can even be employed, can come away with a linear political narrative remotely like that of, say, Robert La Follette on the left or Robert Taft on the right.
He said he was shaped, at least from the sidelines, by the civil rights movement, and yet he was the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman who in 1994 reported out the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, often blamed for the mass incarceration of Blacks. For decades he championed the interests of the big businesses incorporated in his home state of Delaware, yet today he is advocating a massive increase in corporate taxes.
Mr. Biden above all is sensitive to the political winds. That is no political crime; it is what defines politics. It is what led Theodore Roosevelt to attack the “malefactors of great wealth [who] have arrogantly ignored the public welfare,” Franklin Roosevelt to make war on the “money changers [who] have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization,” and Ronald Reagan to say that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” None of these presidents embraced views remotely like that as young men. They all reacted to the times.
— If Mr. Biden is a follower, whom is he following?
His aides say he is following his own gyroscope, and there is something to that; he did go to Washington in 1973 as a liberal. But conservatives like Lance Morrow, writing in The Wall Street Journal, worry that Mr. Biden — who he says “didn’t lay a glove on history in his four decades in the Senate” — is vulnerable to reacting “to the surprise of waking up in the White House by pandering to the flashiest ideas of the young people and their hero Bernie Sanders.”
There can be no doubt that there is some truth to that, too. The practice of politics as the art of the possible requires a political figure to practice the art of the plausible. It was not plausible for Mr. Biden, for all his centrist instincts, to hold together the Democratic coalition that desperately wanted to dethrone Donald J. Trump without embracing ideas from the most vocal wing of his own party.
In her book “Persist,” to be published only days from now, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts writes: “As a candidate, Joe Biden may not have looked like a progressive firebrand, but he and Kamala Harris ran a campaign promising the most aggressive economic, social and racial changes in U.S. history.”
FDR as president had no affinity for — and later battled furiously against — the Southern conservatives, but then, to his historical disgrace, turned a blind eye to their segregationist views. Conversely, John F. Kennedy was no ardent integrationist, but the moral imperative of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his movement prompted him, in the last June of his life, to issue a clarion call for justice, having done for himself what he bid Americans to do when the University of Alabama refused to admit two Black students: “I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents.”
Last week some progressive Democrats met with White House officials in an effort to make the child tax credit that was increased as a response to the pandemic permanent rather than have it expire next year. That alone is no suggestion that a certain wing of the president’s party is exercising undue influence; no less a Trump-supporting conservative than GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri has a family tax credit plan of his own. Besides, presidents often consult with members of Congress as they shape their proposals. This is inherent in the old chestnut of 1950s civics classes stipulating that a president proposes and the Congress disposes. This sort of consultation simply makes that disposal more efficient.
— Is all Mr. Biden’s spending — and the increased role government will play in the economy and national culture — what the people really want?
Republicans are hard-wired to say no. That, in fact, is what Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said this winter as the Biden spending plans began to be rolled out. “It is clear,” he said, “that Democrats intend to pursue a radical agenda full of left-wing priorities with the full support of President Biden.”
But hold on a moment. One of the most stunning trends in America is the stark transformation of the public’s views about government involvement in people’s lives. The Reagan movement and President Bill Clinton’s 1996 proclamation that “the era of big government is over” sensitized us to the idea that Americans want Washington to retreat from the lives of ordinary citizens.
It was true once. It may not be true anymore.
Have a look at this spring’s Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll, which shows that 55% of Americans agree with the statement that “government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people.” That was true even during the Trump years, when the rate actually peaked at 58% two years after his inauguration. That’s a big change from December 1995, a month before Mr. Clinton’s obituary for big government, when only 32% felt that way. Whether he is leading or following, Mr. Biden is not sailing against the wind.