Two Big Steps Forward for America

Progress on the pandemic and the economy could create momentum for more gains in 2021

Take a minute and think back to where you were about a year ago when the impact of the coronavirus hit the country: a national emergency declared, stay-at-home orders and travel bans issued, schools closed, and workplaces shuttered.  

Americans will remember that time just as previous generations remember the 9/11 attacks or President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  Unlike those previous national moments, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic has been a grinding journey stretched out over time. It hit everyone in direct and personal ways in their daily lives – and the effects are lasting for all. Life will never be the same.

This week, an important turning point happened.  Just fifty days into the Biden administration, America took major steps forward on the road to revival on the nation’s two main priorities: the pandemic and the economy. Vaccinations picked up speed this week, and Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, an ambitious effort to put the country back on the road to recovery. 

President Joe Biden marked the occasion with a prime-time address from the White House.  The tone of what he said was as important as the substance: a mix of somber and hopeful, a reflection of the national mood. His speech was just the latest reminder to Americans about the importance of a leadership that radiates grace, gravitas, and empathy. 

Progress in the fight against the pandemic and the effort to address the country’s weaknesses exposed by the events of the past year can continue – but it depends on how America’s leaders respond to the current moment. 

They can find pathways to work together, and the country can do bigger things to help improve the situation for all and strengthen our ability to compete in the world.   Or they can remain mired in political dysfunction and division, and the recent forward progress could be easily squandered. 

Two Main Challenges: Pandemic and the Economy

On the coronavirus, Biden stressed that the country is not out of the woods yet, and continued progress requires shared sacrifice:

“Look, we know what we need to do to beat this virus: Tell the truth. Follow the scientists and the science. Work together. Put trust and faith in our government to fulfill its most important function, which is protecting the American people — no function more important. We need to remember the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital. No, it’s us. All of us.”

That message of inclusive patriotism was coupled with specific goals of having enough vaccines for adults by May 1 and holding small gatherings of friends and family by the Fourth of July. This continued progress on the pandemic is the first big step for America.

The second big step America made this week was the massive relief package aimed at jumpstarting the economy.  This package is extremely popular with the American public – with anywhere from 70 percent to three-quarters of Americans supporting the measure.

This strong level of support and the fact that nearly all Republicans in Congress opposed the measure show how out of touch the GOP is today with most Americans.  As one former Trump official admitted, “We lost the narrative on this covid package.  It’s overwhelmingly supported, and we haven’t done a good job to message why Americans should oppose it.”   Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi even went so far to praise the bill’s key measures on Twitter even though he voted against it.

Two Main Tasks:  Implementation and Regular Public Communication

The two main tasks for the Biden administration on this stimulus package are to implement it without making big mistakes and regularly communicate to the American public how these investments are making their lives better.  Implementation has been made trickier by the fact that the previous administration intentionally gutted staffing and capacity at key federal agencies.  But the Biden administration needs to avoid the mistake the Obama administration made in the flubbed rollout of its signature first-term achievement on healthcare, the Affordable Care Act.

Equally important as implementation is the messaging battle.  As John Halpin argued recently, Biden and his team will need to “talk frankly and consistently with Americans about why they are spending this money, who it is helping, and how it’s laying the ground for immediate relief and longer-term renewal post-pandemic.”  The messaging battle over this package is already fierce, and even though the GOP looks like it is losing badly now, things could turn in any direction at this tenuous phase of national recovery. 

One possible partner in this effort to communicate the benefits is the private sector – thousands of companies around the country will directly benefit from consumers’ increased spending, spending that is likely to flow more directly into America’s economy as the pandemic restrictions are lifted. 

Beyond this third stimulus and the continued fight against the pandemic, some major challenges for additional national progress loom – and addressing these challenges requires a new style of politics, one that seeks to build new coalitions and think outside of the box with a continued focus on national unity, as Peter Juul advised.

Two Political Challenges:  Democratic Party Unity and Republican Party Obstructionism

The stimulus package unified the Democrats and underscored the emptiness and disunity that remains at the heart of the Republican Party.  Among the Democrats, serious divisions are emerging on the best next step after the achievement of the American Rescue Plan – over infrastructure, immigration, and military spending, among other issues.  As Biden and the Democrats strategize about the next step, they should take to heart Ruy Teixeira’s advice that a political party’s main mission is maximizing votes and getting things done – and that it’s not a social movement, media company, or an academic institution. 

Today’s Republican Party is at an important crossroads.  At the national level, it is flailing and divided on a broad range of economic and cultural issues, even as it has a strong political position in many states, a position that it is using to push restrictions on voters’ rights. The GOP seems to be slipping into a default mode of obstructionism, which may not be a winning formula if progress in America continues.  As Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle recently asked, “Where are the ideas, Republicans?”  It is important for political parties to stand for something and not just against things. 

The Biden administration would be wise to continue to reach out and try to bring Republicans into the broader efforts at national recovery – but it should also plan for the likelihood that few Republicans will join them on many measures. Team Biden should also continue to reach out to Republican leaders at the state and local level; many will see tangible benefits from the American Rescue Plan over the next few months in their states and communities.

At the national level, one important test could be how both parties deal with a series of measures coming from both sides of the aisle aimed at enhancing America’s ability to compete and contend with the rise of China. Many of these measure are inward-looking, aiming to enhance America’s own ability to compete. The next best step might be looking for ways to avoid hyper-partisan debates on China and instead look for ways to invest in efforts to invest in new technology like artificial intelligence and public efforts to expand broadband.

America’s politics are now at a pivotal moment.  As New York Times columnist David Brooks notes,

“This moment is like 1981, the dawn of the Reagan Revolution, except in reverse. It’s not just that government is heading in a new direction, it’s that the whole paradigm of the role of government in American life is shifting. Biden is not causing these tectonic plates to shift, but he is riding them.”

The first fifty days of Biden’s administration have offered some very important steps in the right direction. But making additional progress will require a new type of politics, one that rejects the tribal “us versus them” thinking that has dominated American politics for years and instead looks to focus on an inclusive nationalism that puts the common good and dignity of all people at the center.