That bill followed shortly after passage of nearly $1 trillion in covid-related spending at the end of last year, which came after Congress had approved more than $2 trillion in assistance during the earlier months of the pandemic.
Coming next from the Biden administration is new legislation focused on infrastructure, climate and some domestic initiatives. White House officials have said the package will cost $3 trillion or more and that it is likely to include new taxes to help offset the big price tag. At his Thursday news conference, Biden spoke glowingly about the possibilities the package will offer for jobs, productivity and global competitiveness. “There’s so much we can do,” he said.
For liberal Democrats, Biden’s early initiatives represent the fulfillment of a long-sought goal, which is to marshal the full resources of the federal government to attack big problems, from the threats posed by climate change, income and wealth inequality, the country’s aging infrastructure and the cost of higher education. Add to that his intention to tackle immigration and voting rights, and it adds up to the most expansive and ambitious agenda in half a century.
Former president Barack Obama took some steps in that direction with the Affordable Care Act, a more modest stimulus package and financial reform. Overall, many progressives expressed frustration with Obama for not going even bigger and bolder during his presidency. (Obama has offered a dissenting opinion to those complaints.)
Now the party’s liberal wing is cheering a president whom many of them criticized as too centrist, too moderate and too temperate during the 2020 Democratic nomination contest. It was Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), not Biden, who stirred liberals during the Democratic primaries.
Today, Sanders sounds more than pleased with the president. In a recent podcast with Ezra Klein of the New York Times, he said of the new stimulus package, “For working-class people, this is the most significant piece of legislation passed since the 1960s, and I’m proud of what we have done.”
Sanders did note his disappointment that the American Rescue Plan ultimately did not include a $15 minimum wage, saying, “Congress does not pass perfect bills.” But that did not dampen his enthusiasm for the accomplishment, though he indicated that he is not satisfied with stopping there. “We have to do more,” he said, which is exactly what Biden plans to do.
That Biden has become the vehicle for a second Great Society or modern-day New Deal is testament to a general leftward movement within the Democratic Party over the past half dozen years, with Sanders acting as a principal catalyst in the rethinking.
It is likely as well that the coronavirus pandemic has played a significant role in providing the conditions that have allowed Biden to emerge as the advocate of changes on the scale that he is pushing. Pandemics are disruptive when they happen, and they can effect changes long after they have been tamed. Among those are shifts in economic patterns and needs, as the current pandemic has done.
The lockdowns that have taken place over the past year, and the subsequent economic dislocations, have cost millions of Americans their jobs. They have also exposed inequalities in society that have long gone untreated, and the federal government responded robustly. The movement for racial justice has added to the sense of urgency that Biden has displayed in the first months of his presidency.
A year’s worth of government efforts to help protect individuals and businesses whose livelihoods have been threatened by the pandemic has perhaps softened, for now, public resistance to major government initiatives. Biden is trying to capitalize on the current mood by moving swiftly with his big agenda.
Across five polls taken since late February, Biden’s stimulus package earned the support of between 61 percent and 75 percent of the public, according to my Washington Post colleagues Scott Clement and Emily Guskin. The president overstated support for the measure among rank-and-file Republicans during his news conference, but at least a quarter, and in some polls an even larger minority, of Republicans have said they liked the plan.
All the pandemic-related spending bills under the Trump administration were approved with strong bipartisan support, as Republicans set aside their traditional resistance to bigger deficits and more debt to respond to economic crisis caused by the pandemic. With Biden in the White House, GOP lawmakers have now snapped back in the direction of resistance to more government spending. They marched in unison to oppose the president’s stimulus bill and are lining up to do the same with the coming package.
For Biden, the obstacles to successfully enacting the next big package are obvious. He won passage of the stimulus package by taking advantage of Senate rules that allow certain legislation to pass with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes required for most bills.
The $15 minimum wage got knocked out of the stimulus package by the Senate parliamentarian for not fitting into the rules of reconciliation. Could that same fate await much of Biden’s “Build Back Better” initiative? Biden has indicated that he hopes to win support from some Senate Republicans for the coming initiative, and though infrastructure is often described as an issue that could produce bipartisan agreement, Republicans and Democrats have conflicting views about how such a package should be structured and financed. Biden ought not to expect much if any help from Republicans on this.
The president, however, sounds unperturbed by the prospect of little-to-no GOP support. He has shown already that he cares principally about getting as much of his agenda enacted as possible and as quickly as possible, rather than negotiating at length with recalcitrant members of the other party.
There are other potential potholes ahead. Biden must hope that the explosion in federal spending does not trigger inflationary pressures, though most economists see that as a minimal threat for now. He will have to show that government can manage the spending efficiently, with minimal waste and with worthy projects. Ultimately, he must deliver on the promise that these programs will actually change lives, safely stimulate the economy and bring about the benefits promised.
The Great Society, the last big experiment with an expansion in government, created Medicare and Medicaid and many other programs. Ultimately it triggered a backlash against bigger government, which gave rise to the conservative movement that eventually elected Ronald Reagan as president in 1980. Reagan’s anti-Washington sentiment defined much of the past 40 years of political and policy debate, creating a burden that even Democratic presidents since had to take into account.
Now the question is whether the pendulum is moving back in the other direction. The pandemic may have helped to flip the script for Democrats, if in fact resistance to bigger government has declined. Biden is betting that this is the case, that he can do what other Democratic presidents have not been able to do, even with the slimmest of legislative majorities. It’s a high-stakes gamble for him and his party.
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