Biden’s Vision About How to Heal America

Just a few days ago, the United States was in a national tizzy about a balloon.

Never mind that China poses a more significant security risk through TikTok, potentially spying on us while floating inside our phones, and that the United States probably will garner more intelligence from the balloon than it did on us.

President Biden wisely skipped over the balloon in his exceptionally strong State of the Union address — the best speech of his presidency — to address topics that matter much more, and that will actually affect our ability to stand up to China. These include the millions of Americans who “have been left behind or treated like they’re invisible,” and who are now part of the staggering toll of addiction.

We now lose more Americans to “deaths of despair” — drugs, alcohol and suicide — every 10 days than the total of all the service members killed in two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t believe we in the media have adequately covered that catastrophe or that either Republicans or Democrats have done nearly enough to address the pathologies in the underbelly of America.

And for every person who dies from an overdose, countless other homes are in anguish because of a loved one struggling with addiction or mental health — as Joe Biden knows firsthand.

In a leaked 2018 voice mail message, Joe Biden told his son Hunter: “It’s Dad. I called to tell you I love you. I love you more than the whole world, pal. You got to get some help. I don’t know what to do. I know you don’t, either, but I am here no matter what you need, no matter what you need, I love you.”

In that call, Biden modeled the compassion that we have been missing as a country. But good intentions aren’t enough: We also desperately need better policies, for our system for providing mental health services and drug treatment is a disgrace. Only 13 percent of those with drug addictions get treatment. And China’s most grievous behavior toward us doesn’t involve a balloon but the reckless export by Chinese companies of fentanyl precursors that end up killing Americans.

I don’t know if Biden’s proposals — involving a major effort to crack down on fentanyl — will succeed. Nobody does. But I do know it’s personal to Biden, and he gave the crisis the attention it deserves.

Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

Deaths of despair are just one facet of our country’s dysfunction. With mediocre fourth-grade reading scores, unacceptable high school graduation rates and appalling levels of child poverty, they constitute the four vital signs for a patient who is not doing well — and we must address these underlying pathologies if we are to be competitive with China and the world.

“Liberal democracy and global capitalism that were triumphant three decades ago have lost legitimacy,” Martin Wolf of The Financial Times writes in his new book, “The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism.” To rebuild that legitimacy and overcome this crisis, we must make capitalism and democracy work better for those left behind — or people turn to charlatans.

As President John F. Kennedy noted, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

Affluent Americans are often insulated from the crisis in working-class America, but Biden’s understanding comes through with his focus on the word “dignity.”

“My dad used to say, Joey, a job is about a lot more than a paycheck,” Biden said in Tuesday’s speech. “It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect.”

One of Biden’s stories is about the time his dad, then working as a car salesman, attended the dealership Christmas party. The owner amused himself by tossing silver dollars on the floor and watching his employees scramble for them. Disgusted, Biden’s father walked out and away from the job.

Millions of workers today are likewise scrambling for coins on America’s floor and numbing their pain with drugs or alcohol. That’s why a successful drug policy has to be not just about treatment or interdiction of fentanyl, but also about education, job training and more opportunity — and Biden offered that vision in his speech.

I doubt that we’ll see progress this year on expanded child tax credits to cut child poverty in half, or on national pre-K or child care. Conservatives dismiss these as emblems of government overreach.

When Republicans bluster about confronting China and defending America’s place in the world, I hope Biden will make the point that these domestic initiatives are every bit as important as our aircraft carriers. Military hardware cannot fully compensate for domestic unraveling.

I have a friend, Eric, who for decades wasn’t able to get a bank account. This is common: Some 4.5 percent of American households have no one with a bank account, and this is costly. Every time Eric needed to cash a check, he had to pay an $8 fee. But there was another cost as well: the sense of exclusion.

A few days ago, Eric was finally able to open a bank account — thanks, Umpqua Bank! — and he won’t have to pay fees. That’s an economic relief, but he focused on the psychic benefit. “I feel part of the community,” he told me.

That’s the task Biden faces — to recreate community and opportunity, invest in children and healing, and build our strength at home. And that’s the way we most effectively stand up to China, not by pounding our chests and pledging all the ways we’re going to pulverize a balloon.

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