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Biden's speech to Congress highlighted his not-so-secret political weapon

Free community college and tax hikes on the wealthy count as "moderate" in Biden's America.

On Wednesday night, a moderate president addressing a (moderately full) House of Representatives gave a moderate speech before a joint session of Congress, laying out a moderate set of proposals.

Some of those proposals will likely be included in what could be some of the biggest one-time spending bills in U.S. history. Among them: $2.3 trillion for “the largest jobs plan since World War II”; another $1.8 trillion to invest in, among other things, free preschool for 3- and 4-year-old children and two years of free community college; raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour; and tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy to pay for it all.

President Joe Biden and his team are lucky in that regard: Their first 100 days have coincided with an ascendency in popularity for goals that more progressive politicians have struggled to sell for years. Suddenly, progressive policies are more than just mainstream; they’re in vogue. As much as it galls Republicans, Biden and his policies are moderate right now, because America says they are moderate.

Biden has found a workaround to get past the partisan minefield the GOP has spent decades constructing.

It helps that the idea of a “moderate” in politics is inherently subjective. The term itself is a comparative phrase, a judgement dependent on other factors and variables that shift from year to year, let alone presidential administration to presidential administration. The term remains unmoored from any fixed point, primed to be harnessed in any number of contradictory ways.

That helps explain why 42 percent of Americans believe Biden is a moderate, according to the most recent NBC News polling, conducted over a month after he first began pitching his infrastructure plans. That’s just 2 points lower than those who see him as “very” or “somewhat liberal,” a statistical dead heat. More importantly, the policies Biden is pushing are very popular among voters. In poll after poll, large majorities favor the components of both the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan, the latter of which Biden rolled out Wednesday.

Biden is betting — correctly, I would argue — that Americans are ready to accept a changed definition of what makes a moderate position. What if being a “moderate” means supporting ideas that two-thirds off the country supports, excluding either party’s extreme factions? By that metric, most of Biden’s economic proposals spotlighted on Wednesday easily fit into that framework.

Accordingly, Biden’s speech, like all speeches given from that podium, was a Rorschach test. Each viewer at home decides whether the president’s prescriptions are reasonable using their own measure. It’s all perception.

Biden rattled off a series of proposals that neither Presidents Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama would have thought possible. And he did it with the confidence of a man who believed his audience would agree these ideas aren’t radical — they’re just common sense. Given the sharp departure in tone from his predecessor, expect many voters to hear a moderate when they listen to Biden say things like, “I’d like to meet with those who have ideas that are different, they think are better. I welcome those ideas.”

A young Black man could never be seen as more broadly appealing than what Biden represents.

It doesn’t hurt that voters look at Biden — a 78-year-old white man — and see a moderate as well. NBC News political reporter Sahil Kapur saliently noted Tuesday that Biden is currently viewed as more moderate than Obama was 100 days into office, even as he moves more quickly to cement more progressive ideas. A young Black man could never be seen as more broadly appealing than what Biden represents.

The roughly one-hour address also highlighted the elegance of Biden’s early policy strategy. In leaning hard on economic issues in the two infrastructure bills, Democrats are both focusing on voters’ top everyday priorities and reaching for the wins achievable absent the filibuster’s death. It’s social justice in the form of pocketbook issues.

Meanwhile, Republicans, on the whole, still want to cling to the same definition of moderation that’s given them a policy advantage for over 20 years. In this framing, moderates straddle the mid-point between the two parties. In their view, Biden has already betrayed his appeals for unity by having the temerity to govern as a Democrat, backing Democratic policies.

But who abandoned that model first? The Republican Party as a whole veered hard to the right after Obama first took office. First during the tea party takeover in 2011, as Donald Trump rose to power. The roadblocks to governing conservatives threw up, the purging of moderates from their own ranks, the sheer power politics that Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wielded as majority leader, these things all helped alter the perception of what counts as a “moderate” idea coming out of Washington. As their refusal to come to any sort of accord with Democrats grew more steadfast, their obstruction became more evident to the average voter — and ideas of any Democratic proposal being tailored to gain their support grew more ludicrous.

That’s given Biden the space to test whether you can be “bipartisan” without any Republican votes in Congress.

In praising the passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, Biden told the assembled lawmakers that “100 days ago, America’s house was on fire. We had to act.” Not a single Republican in the House or Senate Republican cast a “yea” vote on that bill. Without calling out this fact, Biden declared that “with the overwhelming support of the American people — Democrats, independents and Republicans — we did act.” Biden has found a workaround to get past the partisan minefield the GOP has spent decades constructing.

I have a few theories for why this gulf between policy and perception is so strong at the moment. A lot of it comes down to Biden being seen as a moderate because he hearkens back to an earlier time, both in speech and visage. The president ran — and won — on the idea of restoration. Despite what Republicans say, he’s governing that way. It just happens to be a time when more liberal policies were the order of the day.