But there’s another legendary political character that people should cite to explain why Biden’s governing approach during his first 100 days in office is such a radical break from the past.
That character is a Black woman of indeterminate age who has 12 Social Security cards, mooches on benefits from four fake dead husbands and collects welfare payments under 80 bogus names while getting food stamps.
The Welfare Queen became the political equivalent of a horror movie villain. Democratic leaders didn’t have a counter story that could stop it. It spread the myth that most Black and poor people were lazy cheaters looking for a handout instead of a hand up. The story was so influential that even Democratic presidents became leery of pushing Big Government solutions to help low-income people of color.
But Biden is now boldly going where no contemporary Democratic president has gone before, and he’s destroying one of the GOP’s most effective political attacks in the process.
What’s fascinating is how Republicans have responded. It’s not what they’ve said: that Biden is a “radical” and a “socialist” and his proposals are a “sloppy liberal wish list.”
It’s what they haven’t said that’s revealing. They haven’t successfully deployed any Welfare-Queen-like stories about people of color mooching off pandemic aid to turn a critical mass of White voters against Biden’s plans. If there have been such attacks, they haven’t gained traction.
“[The Republicans] don’t have a coherent pushback,” James Carville told the Daily Beast in a recent interview, describing three right-wing lines of attack against the President. “It’s all CBS: cancel culture, the border and senility.”
Few people would have predicted Biden to be the leader who deposed the myth of the Welfare Queen. He once helped her retain her place on the throne.
He even helped spread the Welfare Queen myth.
In 1988, when he was a US Senator, Biden wrote a column for a Delaware newspaper in which he argued that the welfare system had collapsed.
“As a White, elderly man, Biden is a difficult target for Trump-loving conservatives who like to portray racially diverse Democrats as a threat to what they see as Anglo-Saxon cultural traditions,” CNN’s Stephen Collinson recently wrote.
What was once seen as Biden’s vulnerability as a Democratic candidate — his mixed record on race — has become a presidential asset. It’s easier for him to propose plans that help people of color without sparking a White backlash.
Biden also openly describes his American Jobs Plan, which would invest in rebuilding roads and airports, as a plan to raise the wages of home health aides and caregivers — professions where the majority of workers are women of color.
This is remarkable. A Democratic president is talking boldly and unapologetically about using government aid to not just help millions of working people but also people of color.
It’s a big departure from past years, when Republican leaders kept Democrats on the defensive by deploying varying versions of the same Welfare Queen story that blended racism with contempt for the poor.
One Republican leader called Barack Obama a “food-stamp president.” Another warned of a “tailspin of culture” in inner-city neighborhoods and complained that able-bodied people were turning the safety net “into a hammock.”
Even past Democratic presidents may have been influenced by this racist rhetoric. President Bill Clinton vowed to “end welfare as we have come to know it” when he led the passage of a welfare reform law in 1996. And Obama proposed cutting Social Security to ensure its long-term viability.
“Uncle Joe,” though, seems immune so far to such attacks.
Frederick W. Mayer, a political scientist, once said that politics often revolves around a “contest of stories.”
Democrats couldn’t beat the Welfare Queen story because that story was loaded with racist stereotypes about Black people that have been ingrained in American culture for centuries.
When Jared Kushner, former President Trump’s White House, said Trump “can’t want them [Blacks] to be successful more than they want to be successful,” employing a well-worn stereotype that Blacks are lazy. White slaveholders derided Blacks as shiftless. Early Hollywood once offered White audiences popular Black characters such as “Sleep n’ Eat” and “Stepin Fetchit,” dubbed “the “laziest man in the world.”
Perhaps no one should have been surprised when a 2017 University of Chicago survey found that 55% of White Republicans agreed with the statement that Blacks “don’t have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves up out of poverty.” (In the same poll 26% of White Democrats said the same).
Porter says in his book that the US has “the most meager social safety net in the club of advanced nations” because so many White Americans have been persuaded to oppose government programs that, while helping them, also help what they consider to be undeserving Black and brown people.
“The Welfare Queen story was immensely powerful, but you try to find stories that push back against these tropes,” Porter told CNN. “For instance, most of the frontline workers in all of our cities have been mostly Black and brown. They’ve been exposing themselves (to the virus) while delivering food and Grubhub to you while you’re working at home. That’s a story that has a lot of potential to change minds.”
Biden has consistently lifted up these workers, who have helped keep the American economy going at great risk to their own safetys.
“It’s not enough to praise you,” he said to a group of essential workers just days after winning the presidency last year. “We have to protect you. We have to pay you.”
The Welfare Queen also is no longer a potent symbol because Biden has taken advantage of a shift in thinking about how to help the poor.
The city of Stockton, California, recently launched a program that shattered those assumptions. The city sent $500 monthly payments to 125 randomly selected people who were living in neighborhoods with average incomes lower than the city median of $46,000 a year and told them they could spend the money as they saw fit — no strings attached.
Researchers said that the people who received the free money were able to land full-time jobs at more than twice the rate of people in another group that did not receive cash. The extra money also gave recipients more stability to learn new job skills, start businesses and improve their mental outlook. Other similar experiments around the globe have reached similar conclusions.
“The best way to get people out of poverty is just to get them out of poverty; the best way to offer families more resources is just to offer them more resources.”
Biden’s economic plans reflect this thinking. His American Rescue plan sent direct payments of $1,400 per person to many American households. (Former President Trump sent similar payments during the pandemic to many Americans.)
Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan, signed into law in March, offers some parents the option of receiving a $300 monthly payment from the IRS from July through December, as part of the enhanced child tax credit.
The sheer scale of Biden’s multitrillion-dollar effort to end the pandemic and make life better for millions of struggling Americans has inspired some commentators to say that Biden has closed the door on the Reagan era.
Perhaps some of Biden’s plans will never become law in a closely divided Senate. Maybe the Welfare Queen story will mutate and come roaring back in another racist, viral narrative.
But commentators like Brooks should add another paradigm shift to Biden’s list of accomplishments. Biden has done what neither Clinton nor Obama could do:
He’s dethroned the Welfare Queen.