President Biden, in his first major print interview, said Ireland’s leader complained to him that America lost its ability to lead, which was a wake-up call for the president.
He said that view of the U.S. is fueling his pricey, go-big approach to governing as he attempts to compete with Beijing and elevate the U.S.
“We’re kind of at a place where the rest of the world is beginning to look to China,” Mr. Biden told David Brooks, a columnist with The New York Times. “The most devastating comment made after I was elected — it wasn’t so much about me — but it was by the Irish [prime minister], saying that ‘Well, America can’t lead. They can’t even get their arms around COVID.’”
Mr. Biden, who was referring to Ireland’s Micheál Martin, made combatting the virus and shepherding the recovery a cornerstone of his first 100 days.
His second 100 days got off to a rocky start, with gas shortages from a crippled pipeline and violence in the Middle East, though the White House is trying to forge ahead with multitrillion-dollar packages to improve infrastructure and lift up families.
Mr. Biden told Mr. Brooks his ambitions are based on his own experiences and uneven opportunity in U.S. life, especially in education, as the world changes rapidly.
Attempting to explain why he suddenly is backing trillion-dollar legislation, the president pointed to a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” involving the rise of information technology and a Chinese “superstate,” as Mr. Brooks put it.
“I think circumstances have changed drastically. We’re at a genuine inflection point in history,” Mr. Biden said.
“The risk is not trying to go big,” the president said. “If we stay small, I don’t know how we change our international status and competitive capacity.”
Yet he expressed skepticism of some far-left plans, including college-debt forgiveness, in the interview.
“The progressives don’t like me because I’m not prepared to take on what I would say and they would say is a socialist agenda,” he told Mr. Brooks. “The idea that you go to Penn and you’re paying a total of 70,000 bucks a year and the public should pay for that? I don’t agree.”
He said he wants to make capitalism work within the bounds of decency, not eradicate it, and that education can level the playing field.
“The CEOs back as late as the ‘70s were making 35, 40 times as much as the average employee. Now it’s 320 times. What are they promoting? What are they doing? As my mother used to say, ‘Who died and made you boss?’” the president said.
Workers should “earn what they get, but they have to be given an opportunity,” he said.
“I think the thing that moved us ahead of the rest of the world at the turn of the 20th century was the notion that we had universal education,” Mr. Biden told Mr. Brooks. “If we were sitting down today to say, ‘OK, what does public education consist of in the 21st century? Think anybody would say 12 years is enough? I don’t.”