Last night Joe Biden delivered his first prime time speech from the White House after signing the 1.9 trillion dollar pandemic relief bill. As I listened to him for 24 minutes, tears were rolling down my cheeks and I bet I was not the only one. What I felt was relief.. This is what I have been waiting for, hoping for, pushing for and believing would come; a president who would deliver us from the nightmare we have been enduring for over 4 years. I know our country is in good hands. We are going to make it out of this terrible time. We still have work to do. But we will make it.
What Biden has done is rise to the occasion to deliver far more progressive change than he was anticipated or expected to bring. As a former centrist, Biden was expected to be a centrist. But what people did not recognize was that he is also a pragmatist and a deeply and authentically empathic person who cares about our country and every American without any overlay of racial animus. As a pragmatist and an empathic man, he understood that Americans needed more than a return to the status quo. This pandemic relief bill that was just signed into law has embedded in it some of the most far reaching liberal shifts in thinking that our country has ever seen. Support for families with children is an example.
For decades, certainly since the Reagan era, our country has been punitive about a social safety net for Americans. Not all Americans were people who deserved help. The real people in the phrase “for the people” were mostly white. Our government generally harbored an underlying cynical attitude that those who were poor, especially people of color who were poor, were unsuccessful because they did not work hard enough. If you were poor it was your fault. Government was right to withhold the promise of America from people who are black, brown, poor, or immigrant.
As a social worker in the 1970s I realized that our welfare system contributed to breaking up families because of the attitudes underlying social support policies. Aide to Dependent Children was thought of as a hand out. The system had snooping and punitive oversight built into it. Government social workers were tasked with checking up on recipients to be sure they really deserved to get money for dependent children. If there was a secret breadwinning husband around who was capable of working, aide would be withheld from the family. The upshot was that fathers who would wanted to be part of their families had to pretend they were not living in the family. If the father lived with the mother, the family could lose the government checks they desperately needed to get by on, since jobs for people of color were low paying and hard to get. In some cases, as the social worker was knocking on the front door for a family visit, the father would be literally running out the back door so that he would not be caught in the house by the social worker. I often wondered how many families would have been intact families if aide for children had not been predicated on an absent father.
The pandemic relief bill represents a sea change because it is a truly different way of thinking about need. If you have a child you get a check. No strings attached. No questions asked. No need for a father to pretend not to be living with his family. 90% of families with children will get a check. This part of the pandemic relief bill is time limited to one year. It will expire around the time of the mid term election which is calculated to spark a debate about whether to continue this benefit. The Democratic gamble is that it will be popular with the American people just as Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act are popular. The fear of Republicans is that once Americans enjoy a benefit like Obamacare, they will not want to lose that benefit. That’s why they fight so hard to scare the electorate about “socialism” and insist it is a gateway drug that will turn our country into Venezuela, a failed state.
This sort of fear mongering about “socialism” has been the Republican playbook for decades. Trump actually upended that thinking somewhat. He wanted to send out checks to Americans with his signature on them so Americans would know who to thank. It was a marketing device for his reelection. Trump understood the power of a handout to gain loyalty. He also understood that America was a rigged system. But for Trump the goal was to stay in power with the help of that rigged system. Republicans were and still are busy working that rigging in his favor. They care about winning. They don’t care if they cheat to win.
Biden, on the other hand, will give out checks without his name in the signature line because he actually wants Americans to succeed in life. Biden is also going to try to end the rigged system of favoritism that is inequitable and unfair to Americans of color.
There have been two versions of America, in other words- one for those born into a world of possibility, and another for those born into a restricted world with far fewer possibilities because of the color of their skin. Trump deepened that divide so much and so shamelessly that it ignited a reaction to him, his policies and the people that carry out these punitive policies in communities across the country. Trump’s over the top policies towards immigrants and people of color literally pulled back the curtain exposing the ugly shocking unfairness that had always been there but now was nakedly revealed. When the pandemic hit, that exposed even more unfairness as “essential workers” and their families got the virus and died in higher numbers. Then, when Americans lost their jobs because of the pandemic through no fault of their own, the unfair treatment of people without means became unacceptable because suddenly middle class Americans ended up in miles long food lines needing a hand out for the first time in their lives. We had an epiphany in America. More people understand that poverty is not a function of being a lesser human being.
Mitch McConnell and other Republicans might like to try to tar the pandemic relief bill as a liberal wish list or a socialist threat, but with 76% of Americans approving of it, including 73% of Republicans, and 95% of Democrats, this relief bill has the potential to prove to Americans that we do in fact want a social safety net that boosts the fortunes of every American, not just the wealthy, not just white people, not just Trump voters but EVERY SINGLE American.
Biden packed a lot into his 24 minute remarks. Here is an overview summary of what he said: Trump got us into this mess (didn’t name Trump but, duh), Have empathy and stop attacking other Americans (Asians). We will win this war over the virus. Yes, it’s a real war. But we have to work together and that means wear your mask no matter what your governor might be saying (didn’t say governor but it was implied). If we are successful we can look forward to being together on the Fourth of July to celebrate with our families and friends without masks. Keep believing. Hope is a good thing.
Yes. Hope is a good thing. I have it. I hope you do too.