Joe Biden got lucky. It won’t happen again. That’s the word in Washington. That’s what the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker and Marianna Sotomayor report here:
President Biden and Democrats hailed the massive $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that passed the Senate this weekend as a triumph of Democratic ideals, with Biden calling the legislation “significant” and “historic.”
But the bill’s passage – on a tissue-thin party-line vote, after more than 24 hours of Senate debate – belied the broader challenges facing Biden as he tries to navigate intraparty divisions to push through an ambitious agenda on voting rights, climate change, immigration and other issues.
Those challenges come from his own party:
The relief act’s narrow slog through the 50-50 Senate revealed real disagreements between the Democratic Party’s liberal and centrist wings, as well as Biden’s instincts for procedure and bipartisanship. These and other disputes over the past week on issues ranging from the minimum wage to a new budget director also provided fresh warning signs for the rest of Biden’s priorities, which will require a unified Democratic Party and little room for error against Republican opposition.
The progressives want action. They held their noses and voted for this old-fashioned pleasant but far too careful old man, to edge out Trump. Without their votes, Trump would have won it all. Biden owes them. Republicans smiled:
Even as his party appeared headed for defeat, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took to the Senate floor in the middle of the overnight debate to mock the Democratic drama.
“Well, my goodness, that’s been quite a start – quite a start – to this fast-track process,” McConnell said, unable to suppress a smile. “A little tougher than they thought it was going to be, isn’t it? Turned out to be a little bit tougher.”
Stuff it, Mitch:
Biden and his allies, however, were exultant at the outcome, noting that the president had proposed an ambitious package to help combat the deadly coronavirus pandemic and offer Americans economic relief, and ultimately succeeded.
And there was next to nothing in there for big corporations and nothing at all for the two hundred richest families in America. Democrats aren’t Republicans. The Washington Post’s Heather Long shows why:
President Biden’s stimulus package, which passed the Senate on Saturday, represents one of the most generous expansions of aid to the poor in recent history, while also showering thousands or, in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars on Americans families navigating the coronavirus pandemic.
The roughly $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which only Democrats supported, spends most of the money on low-income and middle-class Americans and state and local governments, with very little funding going toward companies. The plan is one of the largest federal responses to a downturn Congress has enacted and economists estimate it will boost growth this year to the highest level in decades and reduce the number of Americans living in poverty by a third.
Nothing is trickling down here. There’s nothing indirect here. Those in dire need get what they need, not doubletalk, and they know it:
This round of aid enjoys wide support across the country, polls show, and it is likely to be felt quickly by low- and moderate-income Americans who stand to receive not just larger checks than before, but money from expanded tax credits, particularly geared toward parents; enhanced unemployment; rental assistance; food aid and health insurance subsidies.
But some do worry still:
The bill, which the House is expected to pass and send to Biden within days, injects the economy with so much money that some economists from both parties are warning that growth could overheat, leading to a bout of hard-to-contain inflation. Meanwhile, some businesses are saying that government aid has been so generous that they’re already having trouble getting unemployed workers to return to work – a problem that could be exacerbated by the legislation.
That first thing – sudden awful inflation – never seems to happen anymore. Obama goosed the economy, big time. No inflation. And that second thing – people staying home and not working ever again, and living the good life on three hundred dollars a week, is an absurd notion. One can imagine any number of reasons a few might not want to go back to work just yet – fear of Covid for one. Nothing is simple. But this rescue package is fairly straightforward, and quite temporary:
Unlike many other significant anti-poverty measures passed by Congress in history, this one has a short time horizon, with almost all the relief for families going away over the coming year. That could be an abrupt awakening for Americans who have grown accustomed to financial support since Congress moved swiftly to create a stronger safety net at the start of the pandemic a year ago. It also lacks the bipartisan imprint of former President Trump’s bills, which directed money in larger measure to companies as well as individuals.
But it does what’s necessary:
“This legislative package likely represents the most effective set of policies for reducing child poverty ever in one bill, especially among Black and Latinx children,” said Indivar Dutta-Gupta, co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. “The Biden administration is seeing this more like a wartime mobilization. They’ll deal with any downside risks later on.”
The upside is more important now:
Many economists say the package is far from perfect, but they broadly agree that this crisis has been an unprecedented hit on low-income workers and their children and the aid should be targeted most toward them.
Recent history has shown that giving money to poorer families delivers the greatest boost to the economy, because those Americans are the most likely to spend the money right away.
“History and a strong body of research would tell us the only way to avoid more lasting scars on households and the economy is by not doing too little,” said Ellen Zentner, chief economist at Morgan Stanley. She pointed out that giving money to low-income households “is much more stimulative than past policies in a downturn.”
So just do it:
The mantra of the White House and the Federal Reserve has been that it’s better to err on the side of doing too much than too little. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has made the case that it’s not just the jobless who are struggling. Many people have taken a pay cut or are working fewer hours and many families have had to juggle jobs with child-care and elder-care responsibilities, which brings more costs.
“Any time you try to design a targeted system in the scale of the U.S. economy, you end up missing people,” Neel Kashkari, president and chief executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, said in a Friday interview. This bill “really, in my mind, is not meant to be stimulus, it’s meant to be relief for those families who’ve lost jobs.”
Kashkari led the bank bailout, known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), in the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis. Back then, he said, the government was so concerned about targeting aid to deserving families that a lot of struggling homeowners didn’t get money fast enough and the nation ended up with a massive foreclosure problem. He doesn’t want to see that repeated.
Democrats say the American Rescue Plan corrects the flaws…
Republicans most know this. NBC’s Sahil Kapur and Allan Smith confirm that:
The Republican Party is showing signs of softening its trademark fiscal conservative brand in favor of a new populist approach, a potentially seminal shift as the party becomes more reliant on blue-collar white voters after Donald Trump’s presidency.
The last time Republicans were thrown out of power, in 2009, they embraced an unabashed tax-cutting and spending-cutting vision to find their way out of the wilderness. Now, the party is taking a different path as ambitious figures seek to curry favor with voters by pushing a larger government safety net that includes cash for families and a minimum wage increase.
Ah, it was now time to act like Democrats:
The new approach comes at a time of deep economic hardship – rising income inequality and escalating costs of health care and college tuition – made worse by the coronavirus pandemic. The trend, if it continues, will test the long-standing alliance between the GOP and big business, and it has the potential to reshape the future of American policymaking.
“I hope there’s support for getting working people a fair shot. Most Americans – they don’t want to be taken care of. They would like a fair shot, though – to be able to get a job, be able to raise their family,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.
Hawley’s rhetoric echoes that of progressives who say the government has a larger role in providing equal economic opportunity. He has been a vocal supporter of direct cash payments to Americans, even teaming up with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a democratic socialist, recently.
What? But then there’s Mitt:
Perhaps no Republican embodies the change quite like Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah. Romney ran for president in 2012 on a platform of slashing taxes, raising the Social Security retirement age and cutting Medicare spending. He picked as his running mate Paul Ryan, the vanguard of traditional fiscal conservatism.
Now, Romney is leading efforts in his party to expand the safety net with a substantial child allowance and a minimum wage hike to $10 an hour, which would be tied to stricter enforcement of immigration laws. And he was an early proponent of direct payments during the pandemic.
“With regards to each of those plans, the effort is to make our safety net more effective,” Romney said, while emphasizing that his plans would be paid for.
But he still wants a safety net, this time for that forty-seven percent he once despised, and he’s not alone now:
While Romney is hardly a favorite among conservative grassroots activists because of his extensive criticism of Trump, some were enthusiastic about by the proposals, particularly his child care plan, which would provide households up to $4,200 annually per child while cutting some entitlement programs.
The idea of using federal power to promote the nuclear family is at the center of the change in GOP policymaking, and a number of other lawmakers are seeking to lead in the area.
Marco Rubio is one of those, and Jeff Stein, the White House economics reporter for the Washington Post, notes bigger changes:
A new Democratic administration facing down a massive economic crisis pushes an $800 billion stimulus package. A bloc of centrist Democrats balk at the price tag, and Republicans are thrown into a frenzy warning about the impact to the federal deficit.
A little more than a decade later, another new Democratic administration takes office facing a different economic crisis. This time, it proposes spending an additional $1.9 trillion, even though the federal deficit last year was $3.1 trillion – much larger than during the last crisis. Centrist Democrats unify behind passing the measure, and the GOP rejects it but in a more muted fashion.
The disparity between the reception to President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan and President Biden’s is the result of several seismic shifts in American politics – the most dramatic of which may be the apparent impact of the pandemic on attitudes about the role of government in helping the economy.
“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” Nope. Ronald Reagan is dead now:
Since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, polling has found substantial support among Americans for providing more government aid for those in need. That is partially due to the nature of the current crisis, which for a time opened a deeper economic hole than even the Great Recession. But the shift is also the result of a reorientation on economic policy – on the left and on the right – that has transformed the political landscape.
On the right, congressional Republicans may still fret about higher deficits – but the most popular politician among their voters does not. As a candidate and as president, Donald Trump blew past Republican concerns about the deficit, pushing for trillions in additional spending and tax cuts and running unprecedented peacetime debt levels.
And on the left, Democratic lawmakers have increasingly learned to ignore fears about spending too much. Party leaders have said they suffered crippling political defeats in the 2010s precisely because they did not deliver enough meaningful economic relief under Obama – a mistake that they see an opportunity to correct under Biden.
“It’s been a major shift. People have gone from being anti-government, to beyond being even neutral on it, to thinking: ‘We need the government; it has to help us,’” said former congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who helped craft Congress’s response to the last financial crisis and Great Recession.
“You have a new consensus in America – that the government has an important role, and that Ronald Reagan was wrong. For the first time in my lifetime, people are saying that the government has done too little rather than doing too much.”
And that changes everything:
An analysis from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which argues for lower deficits, found the package could ultimately cost $4 trillion if key provisions are extended.
Democrats are blowing past these concerns. Democratic lawmakers and aides say they have heard very few complaints from constituents about concerns the relief plan will drive up the deficit. Even senators representing states that Trump won by huge margins, such as Jon Tester (D-Mont.), have gone along with the bill’s price tag.
The White House has pointed to a range of economic analyses showing that without dramatic federal intervention, it could take as long as two years for employment to fully recover. Economists have also pointed to low interest rates as enabling historic borrowing at relatively low costs. The U.S. jobs report showed the economy added close to 400,000 jobs in February, but the number of Americans out of work is still over 9 million more than it was pre-pandemic.
Just do it. And be glad Joe is still around:
Biden is in some ways the ideal messenger for their spending blitz. A septuagenarian who spent four decades in Congress, the president is hard to portray as a socialist or radical leftist – even as he advances some ambitious expansions of government spending, including a major new child tax benefit.
“Biden’s style and his persona have allowed him to be heard as pragmatic on policies that if articulated by other people would sound ideological,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who advised Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign. “Just by temperament and culture and background, Joe Biden seems less ideological and more pragmatic.”
That has also appeared to contribute to a more muted reaction to Biden’s spending plans than Obama’s. Reports from the Conservative Political Action Conference, held this year in Florida, indicated that the debt and deficits were not major themes energizing the conservative base.
They don’t want to talk about that anymore:
Dave Hopkins, a professor of political science at Boston College who studies the Democratic Party, said the Republican base is no longer “stoked” by criticisms of overspending.
“Moderate vulnerable Democrats feel a lot more freedom to vote for a big spending bill in the current moment – because the polls suggest it’s popular, and because the case against Democrats is being made on Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head, not the debt,” Hopkins said.
Is that all they’ve got? E. J. Dionne sees that:
Republicans and conservatives have used culture wars as a way of encouraging working-class voters to cast their ballots on the basis of social, religious and racial issues rather than on economic questions.
Ever since the 1960s, the GOP has chipped away at the New Deal coalition by insisting that when the word “elitist” is used, it is a reference to cultural trendsetters and professors, not corporate titans.
And when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Princeton, Harvard Law School) claimed that Republicans are now the party of “working class men and women” in an interview on Fox News he spoke of how their wages were being “pulled down” because they were competing with “people coming illegally.”
That’s rich, literally rich:
A member of the party that has done everything it could for the past four decades to destroy organized labor, Cruz even had the temerity to say that Democrats “don’t represent unions anymore.”
His words came a day after Biden offered one of the most pro-union speeches ever given by a president. “Unions put power in the hands of workers. They level the playing field, they give you a stronger voice for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment,” Biden said. “Unions lift up workers, both union and nonunion, and especially Black and brown workers.”
Of particular note here is how Biden linked the inequalities of class and race. Here again, he’s fighting against wedge politics aimed at dividing middle- and working-class voters along racial and ethnic lines – and immigration status.
That’s by design:
The president and his team have exercised enormous discipline in keeping the national conversation focused on bread-and-butter assistance to the vast majority of Americans. It’s one reason his $1.9 trillion aid package that cleared the House and then passed the Senate on Saturday with only Democratic votes polls so well.
Biden simply stays focused:
Whenever he could, Biden has tried to shift the conversation about the pandemic away from cultural conflict and toward the practical work of ending the scourge.
Former president Donald Trump, and now his allies, keep trying to turn mask-wearing into a cultural question linked to personal liberty. Biden calmly but pointedly speaks for the roughly three-quarters of the American public that sees mask-wearing not as some esoteric form of compulsory virtue signaling but as part of everyone’s responsibility to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The right wing tried to make a new flash point out of Biden’s rebuke to “Neanderthal thinking” after Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi lifted mask-wearing requirements. “You know, this is Mr. Unity,” sniffed Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Stanford, Yale University Law School). “And yet, if you disagree with him, you’re a Neanderthal.”
But it hasn’t stuck, and Biden cares more about getting people to wear masks than in pushing the fight further. In any event, most Americans know how deadly it was to politicize mask-wearing in the first place, and it’s excruciatingly hard to turn Biden (D-University of Delaware, Syracuse University College of Law) into an elitist peddler of cultural radicalism.
And, yes, since racism and sexism are often blended into culturally divisive appeals, a 78-year-old White guy is harder for the radical right to demonize than, say, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi.
There’s another way to explain this. Megan McArdle sees this:
Arguments and indignation are starting to define the limits of conservative ideas – and defiant gestures are increasingly what the party has in place of policy.
There are legitimate arguments about where and when to open up now that vaccination is helping us protect the vulnerable. I’d prefer it if Texas and Mississippi – and Connecticut – had stayed closed a little longer, so that the vaccination campaign has a chance to really hammer transmission into submission before summer (hopefully) finishes the job. But I do not own a small business that’s suffering, and many of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) constituents do, and I’m willing to listen respectfully to arguments from the other side.
Well, forget that:
Complain all you want that the COVID-19 relief bill has been packed with all sorts of unrelated stuff from the Democratic wish list – at least the Democrats have a wish list. What’s the Republican equivalent? Often it seems to be literally a bunch of wishes – that the media wouldn’t be so liberal or so mean, that corporations wouldn’t go Full Woke in their diversity trainings, that social media platforms would stop wielding the ban-hammer so enthusiastically against conservatives.
The closest thing this has produced to a real, live governing agenda is “Repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act,” which wouldn’t really fix the problems with social media that Republicans want to address and might do a bunch of things they don’t want, and at any rate is not, by itself, enough to run a country.
That’s the problem:
I share many of their complaints, and their fears about where all this is heading. I talk about it a lot, too. But that can’t be all we talk about. There’s a lot of important stuff going on in the world, and I’m worried we’re missing it by becoming literally reactionary – not so much for anything as against whatever the left is doing. A once-proud movement risks turning into one perpetual, primal scream: “I’m not gonna, and you can’t make me.”
That is not a movement; it is a second adolescence. And whatever the merits of masks or reopening, that reflexively oppositional impulse is unhealthy – for conservatives, and for America.
So really, Joe Biden didn’t get lucky. He got his massive rescue plan. He did what he could. The rest of us got lucky.