Analysis by John Blake, CNN
Updated 9:15 AM ET, Sun May 16, 2021
(CNN)President Joe Biden has been compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson and has even been called the “Anti-Reagan.”
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.
She is, of course, the infamous Welfare Queen.
That’s how Ronald Reagan described her when he introduced the character during a presidential campaign rally nearly half a century ago. Reporters investigating Reagan’s 1976 Welfare Queen story concluded that it wasn’t quite true. Though never mentioning a name or race, Reagan had exaggerated the abuses of an actual Black woman in Chicago.
It didn’t matter, though, if the story was more fiction than fact. The Welfare Queen embodied the GOP’s belief that sending government aid to the poor would backfire because freeloaders — hint, Black people — will invariably splurge that money on steak and lobster.
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.
The heart of Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda is three massive plans that would use huge sums of government money to help working families, including people of color. The American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law in March, includes direct cash payments to struggling families. Two other plans would rebuild the country’s infrastructure and expand tax credits to help working families and make education more affordable.
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.”
Why it’s hard to brand ‘Uncle Joe’ a radical
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.
Biden once described the nation’s ill-fated attempts to integrate public schools in the 1970s as “forced busing.” He cited his ability to get “things done” with White supremacist senators despite fundamental political disagreements.
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.
“We are all too familiar with the stories of welfare mothers driving luxury cars and leading lifestyles that mirror the rich and famous,” he wrote. “Whether they are exaggerated or not, these stories underlie a broad social concern that the welfare system has broken down…”
More recently, Biden’s reputation as a centrist with a problematic history with Black voters dogged him during the 2020 Democratic primaries. Then-rival Kamala Harris memorably confronted Biden during one debate over his opposition to busing. A majority of registered voters still think he is more moderate than Obama, though his policies so far have been more progressive.
“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.
Consider the language he uses to describe his Build Back Better agenda. In the second paragraph of its introductory statement on the White House website, he talks of how “Black and Latino Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and women have never been welcomed as full participants in the economy.”
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.
The pandemic gave Biden another powerful political story
Frederick W. Mayer, a political scientist, once said that politics often revolves around a “contest of stories.”
“Tell a story! Facts are great, analysis is important, but if the goal is political mobilization, a shared story is essential,” Mayer wrote. “And remember, you cannot beat a story without another story.”
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.”
Analysis: Biden just dethroned the Welfare Queen
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