A Look Back

Heather Cox Richardson

One day short of his first 100 days in the White House, on April 28, 2021, President Joe Biden spoke to a joint session of Congress, where he outlined an ambitious vision for the nation. In a time of rising autocrats who believed democracy was failing, he asked, could the United States demonstrate that democracy is still vital?

“Can our democracy deliver on its promise that all of us, created equal in the image of God, have a chance to lead lives of dignity, respect, and possibility? Can our democracy deliver…to the most pressing needs of our people? Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate, and fears that have pulled us apart?”

America’s adversaries were betting that the U.S. was so full of anger and division that it could not. “But they are wrong,” Biden said. “You know it; I know it. But we have to prove them wrong.”

“We have to prove democracy still works—that our government still works and we can deliver for our people.”

In that speech, Biden outlined a plan to begin investing in the nation again as well as to rebuild the country’s neglected infrastructure. “Throughout our history,” he noted, “public investment and infrastructure has literally transformed America—our attitudes, as well as our opportunities.” 

In the first two years of his administration, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, lawmakers set out to do what Biden asked. They passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to help restart the nation’s economy after the pandemic-induced crash; the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (better known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law) to repair roads, bridges, and waterlines, extend broadband, and build infrastructure for electric vehicles; the roughly $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act to promote scientific research and manufacturing of semiconductors; and the Inflation Reduction Act, which sought to curb inflation by lowering prescription drug prices, promoting domestic renewable energy production, and investing in measures to combat climate change.

This was a dramatic shift from the previous 40 years of U.S. policy, when lawmakers maintained that slashing the government would stimulate economic growth, and pundits widely predicted that the Democrats’ policies would create a recession. 

But in 2023, with the results of the investment in the United States falling into place, it is clear that those policies justified Biden’s faith in them. The U.S. economy is stronger than that of any other country in the Group of Seven (G7)—a political and economic forum consisting of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, along with the European Union—with higher growth and faster drops in inflation than any other G7 country over the past three years. 

Heather Long of the Washington Postsaid yesterday there was only one word for the U.S. economy in 2023, and that word is “miracle.” 

Rather than cooling over the course of the year, growth accelerated to an astonishing 4.9% annualized rate in the third quarter of the year while inflation cooled from 6.4% to 3.1% and the economy added more than 2.5 million jobs. The S&P 500, which is a stock market index of 500 of the largest companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges, ended this year up 24%. The Nasdaq composite index, which focuses on technology stocks, gained more than 40%. Noah Berlatsky, writing for Public Notice yesterday, pointed out that new businesses are starting up at a near-record pace, and that holiday sales this year were up 3.1%. 

Unemployment has remained below 4% for 22 months in a row for the first time since the late 1960s. That low unemployment has enabled labor to make significant gains, with unionized workers in the automobile industry, UPS, Hollywood, railroads, and service industries winning higher wages and other benefits. Real wages have risen faster than inflation, especially for those at the bottom of the economy, whose wages have risen by 4.5% after inflation between 2020 and 2023. 

Meanwhile, perhaps as a reflection of better economic conditions in the wake of the pandemic, the nation has had a record drop in homicides and other categories of violent crime. The only crime that has risen in 2023 is vehicle theft.  

While Biden has focused on making the economy deliver for ordinary Americans, Vice President Kamala Harris has emphasized protecting the right of all Americans to be treated equally before the law. 

In April 2023, when the Republican-dominated Tennessee legislature expelled two young Black legislators, Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, for participating in a call for gun safety legislation after a mass shooting at a school in Nashville, Harris traveled to Nashville’s historically Black Fisk University to support them and their cause. 

In the wake of the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Supreme Court decision overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that recognized the constitutional right to abortion, Harris became the administration’s most vocal advocate for abortion rights. “How dare they?” she demanded. “How dare they tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her own body?… How dare they try to stop her from determining her own future? How dare they try to deny women their rights and their freedoms?” She brought together civil rights leaders and reproductive rights advocates to work together to defend Americans’ civil and human rights. 

In fall 2023, Harris traveled around the nation’s colleges to urge students to unite behind issues that disproportionately affect younger Americans: “reproductive freedom, common sense gun safety laws, climate action, voting rights, LGBTQ+ equality, and teaching America’s full history.” 

“Opening doors of opportunity, guaranteeing some more fairness and justice—that’s the essence of America,” Biden said when he spoke to Congress in April 2021. “That’s democracy in action.”

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