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analysis

With decades-old formalities that define a beloved American political ritual but with attendance restrictions that reflect this decade’s twin crises of health and domestic terrorism, President Joe Biden set out the new path his young administration is taking in its hurried effort to move beyond both the Donald Trump years and the coronavirus threat.

The result Wednesday evening was a striking new direction for a country yearning for both normal social interactions that suddenly seem within its reach and, just as desperately, for the public serenity and political unity that remain stubbornly beyond its reach.

That new direction contained bursts of comforting speech – Mr. Biden’s remarks included the phrase “America is rising anew, choosing hope over fear” – and stunning bursts of new spending. By the time the President completed his remarks in the very House of Representatives chamber that precisely 16 weeks earlier was the scene of a raucous rebellion, the price tag reached US$6-trillion.

That stratospheric figure, unthinkable only months ago, included new initiatives he described as “winning the future for America.” Mr. Biden called for preschool for all American children and free community college for two years of study, along with caps on the amount most families spend on child care (price tag: US$225-billion) and monthly payments (of at least $250) to parents.

In all, the specific initiative Mr. Biden unveiled in marking the end of the traditional Hundred Day opening of a presidential administration involves a US$1.8-trillion investment in children, families and education that would fundamentally transform the role government plays in American life.

For progressives, all this is an approach much desired and long postponed. For conservatives, it is a radical change being sold, deceptively, as a mere reversion to the norm under the cover of what the Wall Street Journal editorial page described this week as “the calm after the four-year Trump storm.”

But Mr. Biden’s latest initiative, made at a juncture the President described as a moment of “hope and opportunity,” reflects a fundamental transformation in the structure of American life. It has grown from an equally significant transformation in Americans’ views of how welcome, or how indispensable, Washington is in the lives of people beyond the capital.

In December, 1995, a month before Bill Clinton proclaimed that “the era of big government is over,” only 32 per cent of Americans agreed with the statement that “government should do more to solve our country’s problems.’' Now, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll, 55 per cent feel that way.

This is not a Biden phenomenon. It is an American phenomenon. The figure was even higher during the Trump years, when it reached 58 per cent. Mr. Biden is not sailing against the wind but instead is harnessing that wind.

To finance all this, Mr. Biden, who said that “America is on the move again,” is proposing tax increases that reflect a transformation of his own profile. These new taxes are targeted at those with adjusted gross incomes of more than US$400,000, who will see the marginal tax rate grow from 37 per cent to 39.6 per cent.

At the same time, there will be boosts in capital gains and corporate taxes – vast departures in approach from a President who for 36 years in the Senate represented the pro-business interests of Delaware, where, according to the state’s Division of Corporations, 66.8 per cent of the country’s top 500 companies are incorporated.

Mr. Biden’s tax plans already are under fire. Earlier this week, Republican lawmakers, in Orlando for their annual policy retreat, aimed their attacks on the President’s revenue proposals and fortified themselves to mount an onslaught of arguments that the taxes will stifle the economy and endanger the post-COVID recovery.

Moreover, while the President’s “Buy America” rhetoric was intended as balm for American ears, it likely was discordant to Canadian ears.

The setting and circumstances of this session underlined how extraordinary was this political moment.

Sections of a dozen and a half Washington streets around the Capitol were blocked off for security reasons. In the House chamber, rendered a crime scene on Jan. 6, there were but 200 people rather than the customary 1,600 attendees at such events: only two cabinet members rather than almost the entire group, and just Chief Justice John Roberts instead of a large delegation of jurists.

One unanswered question amid the brave Biden vows of a new jobs offensive, a boost in the minimum wage and support for organized labor: Will the Biden economic and tax proposals halt the retreat of big-business leaders from the Republican Party? That movement began with concern over the volatility of Mr. Trump and accelerated when companies such as Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola criticized what they characterized as Georgia’s voter-suppression law.

And with the markets responding gamely and with 28.5 per cent of the public fully vaccinated, U.S. civic life faces a second unanswered question, initially posed by the American political commentators Sonny and Cher more than a half-century ago.

When Mr. Biden was in law school at Syracuse University, the duo sang that “history has turned the page, uh huh.” At the conclusion of the second Hundred Days, with fragile congressional margins and growing impatience over lingering coronavirus restrictions, will Mr. Biden still be humming that the beat goes on?

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