I asked Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign what his movement would do if Biden doesn’t go as far as he’d like to see. “I don’t think that’s the last word,” he told me. “You know, Lyndon Baines Johnson didn’t want to do the Voting Rights Act. The people decided he had to.”
He went on: “I don’t think we know fully what any president really wants to do until we put the pressure on.” He quoted something Franklin Delano Roosevelt allegedly once said to the labor activist A. Philip Randolph: “Go out and make me do it.” That apocryphal FDR quote came up many times in my reporting. It is a way of putting the onus on activists, while also showing them respect.
Sirota hears echoes of Johnson, too. “Not since LBJ’s era have we simultaneously had a Democratic Congress, a non-celebrity-type machine-Democratic president, and a boisterous left-of-center movement making concrete policy demands,” he said. “That particular confluence can create the ideal conditions for significant and fast progressive change.” What lies ahead, perhaps, is the “make-me-do-it” presidency.
What is holding the factions together for now is the sense that they have a singular chance to bend the American trajectory.
“One of the things that’s impressed me about all members of Congress is there haven’t been a lot of people acting like spoiled brats,” Schatz told me. “We have an opportunity to do more work in this short time period than many of us have done in previous decades.”
Many of the people I interviewed saw 2021 as a break not only from 2017 and Trumpism, and not only from 2009 and the financial-crisis failures, but also from 1981, the year Ronald Reagan became president. “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” Reagan famously said. What I heard socialists, progressives, moderates, and the White House itself agree on is that the country has a chance to plot an escape from that imprisoning assumption. “We’re breaking out of the Reagan consensus right now,” Trumka, the union leader, told me.
Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s secretary of transportation, ran to the right of the progressives in the 2020 campaign, but often spoke of ending Reagan’s grip. I asked him if “the era of big government” was back. “I would definitely say the idea that government is the problem is over,” he told me. “It’s a new era of expecting government to help solve big problems.”
It is awkward but important to bear in mind that, when Reagan got to work slashing both government and taxes, he had a perhaps ambivalent ally in a young senator from Delaware named Joe Biden. Biden voted for the package that is now viewed as the seedbed of the Reagan age. It is remarkable that Biden’s White House, more than Clinton’s or Obama’s, should embrace the idea of ending Reagan’s reign.
“This really is the place where we can change the paradigm of how government has operated since Reagan,” Mike Donilon, a senior White House adviser to Biden who began working for him, fittingly, in 1981, told me. “One thing he has always believed is government can be a force for good in people’s lives.” Naturally, he wanted to frame Biden’s stance today in terms of continuity. But I pushed him on the improbability of it all—this leader, of all leaders, driving a turn away from a center-right consensus of which he was a card-carrying member.