A Breath of Fresh Air

It some ways it was certainly unusual. But mostly its normalcy made it a breath of fresh air. For more than an hour President Joe Biden delivered a report to Congress, the nation, and the world on the state of the state one hundred days into his administration. He laid out the achievements already accomplished, the programs now under way, and the proposals he is sending to Congress for enactment into law.

One way the speech was unusual was that there were two women behind the president. Presiding over the joint session of Congress were Vice-President Kamala Harris, who is President of the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. That was a historic first. Another way was that the chamber, which normally holds 1,600 people for these events, was limited to 200 by pandemic protocols. The audience members were socially distanced and most were masked.

But the speech itself was “normal” in that it was upbeat and forward looking. You can read it and judge for yourself here. I heard a president speak without pointing fingers and naming names. I heard a president applaud all Americans and political leaders of both parties for their work in achieving the successes already accomplished. And I heard a president call on us all to work out our differences and reach compromises to solve the problems we face.

This was a far cry from the presidential speeches of the last four years. Donald Trump never missed an opportunity to pat himself on the back, denigrate those who differed with his opinions by name and in threatening terms, and try to scare us by insisting our nation was threatened by his political opponents and only he could protect us.

From President Biden:

There is not a single thing, nothing, nothing beyond our capacity. We can do whatever we set our minds to if we do it together. 

Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, delivered the opposition response. He had an opportunity to strike a consolatory note. He did not. Once again I urge you read the text yourself. After a propitious start, I heard Scott fall back on the same old same old in terms of the Republican line. His first grievance is that President Biden is not “bipartisan.” That complaint ignores several realities. First, that the Democrats did win the election. Second, that the various proposals the Democrats have proposed are popular. Even with Republican voters and in a Fox poll. And finally, that for all their bluster and blunder, Republicans have not put forth any proposals of their own with enough Republican cosponsors to be passed into law.

Another Republican complaint is that the Democrats are moving beyond the “traditional” definition of infrastructure, whatever that means. I’ve discussed this before. As I see it anything that contributes to the long-term benefit of Americans qualifies as infrastructure and is a worthwhile investment.

And finally, Republicans complain about the cost and the impact of President Biden’s proposals on the deficit. As anyone who remembers their high school math can see for themselves, if they are willing to do a little research, it is Republican presidents starting with Reagan who have increased the deficit. They’ve done it mostly by lowering taxes on companies and the richest Americans, claiming everyone will benefit. But most of us have not, as President Biden noted:

My fellow Americans, trickle down — trickle down economics has never worked, and it’s time to grow the economy from the bottom and the middle out.

In 1952 and 1954 the highest marginal tax rate for individuals in the United States was 92 percent, the highest ever. For tax year 2020, including a charge for the Affordable Care Act, the maximum federal income tax rate was 40.8 percent. President Biden:

So, how do we pay for my jobs and family plan? I made it clear, we can do without increasing the deficit. Let’s start with what I will not do. I will not impose any tax increase on people making less than $400,000. But it is time for corporate America and the wealthiest 1% of Americans to just begin to pay their fair share. Just their fair share.

He could not be more clear. His proposal calls for tax increases on individual taxpayers only on earnings above $400,000. That’s the one percent of Americans who have enjoyed almost all the benefit of decades of Republican tax cuts. Still Senator Scott and other Republicans have been hitting the airwaves complaining of what they call “massive,” “deficit increasing,” and “job killing” tax increases. These are simply lies.

There will be increases in taxes on America’s largest and most profitable companies. Republicans argue that raising the marginal corporate tax rate to a level greater than the rate in most other industrialized countries will be drive these companies overseas. But marginal tax rates are not what matters. What matters is the amount companies actually pay.

These companies give huge campaign contributions to lawmakers and have lobbied for and then used every tax preference, read “loophole,” available to reduce their tax liability. At least 55 of the largest corporations in America paid no federal corporate income taxes in their most recent fiscal year despite enjoying substantial pretax profits in the United States. These companies all benefit from the infrastructure spending of the federal government. President Biden:

Look, the big tax cut of 2017, you remember it was supposed to pay for itself. That was how it was sold. And generate vast economic growth. Instead, it added $2 trillion to the deficit. It was a huge windfall for corporate America and those at the very top.

Instead of using the tax saving to raise wages and invest in research and development, it poured billions of dollars into the pockets of CEOs. In fact, the pay gap between CEOs and their workers is now among the largest in history. According to one study, CEOs make 320 times what the average worker in their corporation makes, it used to be in the — below 100. The pandemic has only made things worse. 20 million Americans lost their job in the pandemic, working and middle class Americans.

There is one complaint the Republicans put forward that is at least based on fact. The massive programs President Biden has proposed do increase the role of the federal government in our lives. So what? These programs have succeeded many times in our history and improved the lives of average Americans. You can’t deny that we face problems that have to be solved, competition that needs to be addressed, inequities that must be alleviated if social tensions are to be managed. President Biden:

I like to meet with those who have ideas that are different, that they think are better. I welcome those ideas. But the rest of the world is not waiting for us. I just want to be clear, from my perspective, doing nothing is not an option.

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