In his Jan. 20, 2022, inaugural address, President Joe Biden called on us to “look ahead in our uniquely American way – restless, bold, optimistic – and set our sights on the nation we know we can be, and we must be. But many Americans were looking back to the unprecedented and tumultuous attempted insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021.
Backward looking is not normal for a democracy – especially one like ours that is always in “pursuit of a more perfect union.” But you won’t find perfection by looking backwards. President Abraham Lincoln reportedly once said, “I walk slowly, but I never walk backwards.”
Lincoln led this country through a period of internal turmoil, when there was no certainty that America would emerge intact. I believe Biden faces similar challenges today. In addition to the political challenge that faced our country as he took office, our country was struggling to reduce the toll of COVID-19, restore our place on the world stage, reform community policing, keep our communities safe, combat climate change and more.
Biden took a page from Lincoln’s methodical approach to move us forward. Within the first six weeks of his administration, Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. That law made COVID-19 vaccinations available, stabilized families, unshuttered businesses, reopened schools and got people back to work.
He followed that legislation with another historic bill, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that’s investing $1.2 trillion in roads and bridges, clean air and water, ports and rail, electric vehicles and making high-speed internet accessible and affordable for all.
During our lively debate over the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, competing interests within our party were threatening that agenda and our continued pursuit of a more perfect union. I urged members to step outside their comfort zones and find common ground. We were able to subsequently craft the bill that was signed into law.
Biden’s poll numbers dipped dramatically as the pandemic lingered. But Democrats entered the 2022 election cycle comfortable with his approach and confident in our agenda. We continued to focus on the future and passed much-needed legislation: the CHIPS & Science Act to keep skilled technical and manufacturing jobs in the U.S; the PACT Act to provide health care and resources for military heroes who had been subjected to toxic burn pits and Agent Orange; and the Safer Communities Act to combat gun violence and provide more law enforcement officers in rural communities.
We also passed the Inflation Reduction Act. While it was the largest investment ever to combat climate change, it also authorized Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices and capped the cost of insulin at $35 for seniors starting Jan. 1, 2023.
While our legislative wins were impressive and unprecedented, pundits remained focused on the noise and name calling. They bought into the dire predictions that voters would turn Democrats out in droves. I was often asked, “What would it take to get beyond the acrimony?” My answer was always the same: “A definitive election, one in which massive numbers of Americans would step outside their comfort zones.”
That’s what happened on Nov. 8. Many Republicans and independents who aren’t usually comfortable voting for Democrats did so in record numbers. The election results seem to have changed the narrative from one of looking backward to one that is forward focused.
Forward momentum is the only way to overcome the pull of the past and break the ties of those wanting a return to divisive and dangerous times. I believe Biden has proven that he too will “stand firm enough to not go backward.”
With the House and Senate as closely divided as they are, progress will require that both sides step outside of their comfort zones and continue our pursuit of “a more perfect union.” The extent of our commitment and success will be determined by the American people at the time – and in the places – they usually render their decisions, at the ballot boxes.
James E. Clyburn is the majority whip and the third-ranking Democrat in the United States House of Representatives. He previously served in the post from 2007 to 2011 and served as assistant democratic leader from 2011 to 2019.