Initially, the decision by President Biden and congressional Democrats to take the budget-reconciliation route for their $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package appeared purely tactical. That is, they opted to take a much-needed and almost universally agreed-upon idea to better fund coronavirus testing and vaccines, added in significant economic relief for those hurt by the pandemic, then topped it off with funding for other party priorities so generous that the package didn’t have a ghost of a chance to draw enough Republican support to survive a filibuster.
Given Biden’s talk on the campaign trail and his inaugural address about bipartisanship, comity, and unity, it was enough to raise an eyebrow or two. It also seemed to diverge from Biden’s ideological positioning in the race for the Democratic nomination. It is pretty safe to say the reason Biden won the party nod is that once Bernie Sanders elbowed aside his colleague Elizabeth Warren and effectively consolidated the Left, panic set in among the centrists, and voilà: Doubts about Biden disappeared and the nomination was his, precisely because he was not from that progressive side of the party.
That said, anyone who referred to Biden a year ago as a “centrist” probably got carried away. One could have plausibly argued that he has long been in the ideological center of the Democratic Party, but he’s pretty far from the 50-yard line of the electorate as a whole. Still, his ideological posture of late has been surprising.
It shouldn’t surprise us any longer. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the parliamentary maneuvering over the stimulus wasn’t merely a tactical decision to skip the bipartisan approach; it was more strategic, more foundational.
Witness another pair of proposals that marry traditional infrastructure items like roads, bridges, sewers, rail lines, ports, electric-vehicle charging stations, rural broadband, and electrical-grid updates with what the administration is describing as “human infrastructure”—ranging from universal pre-K and free community college to paid leave and long-term care. It’s a soup-to-nuts feast for progressives. As The New York Times said, “The overall price tag of the package could approach $4 trillion since it includes several tax incentives, like credits to help families afford childcare and to encourage energy efficiency in existing buildings. It could also extend temporary tax cuts meant to fight poverty, which could increase the size of the proposal by hundreds of billions of dollars, according to estimates prepared by administration officials.”
As Axios reported, Biden has even met with historians, reflecting his “determination to be one of the most consequential presidents.” He is clearly pushing an agenda that he hopes and believes will be remembered and recalled in such sessions decades from now.
Some wags used to joke that Biden was the type of politician who could put out the fire in a fireside chat. But truly, Biden’s agenda is more reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society than the more modest and forgettable Fair Deal of Harry Truman, Bill Clinton’s New Covenant, or Jimmy Carter’s New Spirit. As our nation’s 47th vice president once said about another expansion of federal authority, “this is a big f*cking deal.”
And as Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth said, “What’s done is done.” Nowhere is that more true than with big-ticket items in Washington. Decades later, anyone with a car or truck is driving on President Eisenhower’s interstate-highway system, which has been described as “the greatest public works project in history.” Much of the Great Society is still standing. And for all of Republicans' efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, most of it is still there, even though parts have been nullified by courts.
As Cornerstone Macro’s Andy Laperriere, one of Wall Street’s smartest Washington watchers, wrote to his investment-community clients earlier this week, “We have been perplexed by reports during the past several weeks (including some feedback we have heard from Democrats on Capitol Hill) suggesting that Democrats were going to abandon most of the promises Biden made during the campaign.”
Indeed, for progressives on Capitol Hill, suspicions that Biden wouldn’t deliver could hardly be more wrong.
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