Should Joe Biden Go Big Again?

He might not go as big as the left wants him to. But he’s not going to start cutting taxes either.

Joe Biden signing the recent stimulus bill. Source: The Financial Times

Democrats have been pulling Joe Biden back and forth for the past two weeks. Ever since their first stimulus package passed, they have advised Biden on how to conduct the remainder of his presidency. The White House has settled on a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure proposal that focuses on building both physical and human infrastructure, the former focused on roads and bridges and the latter focused on education and welfare. But questions remain about the trajectory of this bill. Should it be fully paid for? Will any Republicans support it? And should it include other Democratic priorities, or should those priorities wait for future legislation? As Eric Levitz notes, Democrats are stuck:

The constraint on new spending is moderates’ limited appetite for raising taxes or the deficit. The obstacle to the non-budgetary items on Biden’s agenda is moderates’ aversion to abolishing the filibuster. These are not problems that creative interpretations of the Congressional Budget Act can solve.

There is a feeling among many liberals that the Joe Biden administration has been as successful as they could have ever hoped for. Consider the discourse around Biden’s stimulus bill, which was signed on March 11. The response among Democrats was one of universal support. The bill had nearly everything the left had asked for. It contained a raft of general spending programs and targeted support to groups such as African American farmers. Once again, Biden had greatly exceeded expectations. Many Democrats believed that all he would get with a 50–50 tie in the Senate was a manageable cabinet approval process.

Like Otto von Bismarck in the 1880s and Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, Biden’s successes went far left enough to satisfy the will of the public while also failing to go as big as some had hoped. But there are nearly four years left in Biden’s first term. The question of what to do next will most likely fall on traditional Democratic fault lines. The left will push Biden to go as big as he possibly can in the few reconciliation bills that he has left in his administration. In addition to the trillion-dollar-plus infrastructure bill they have planned, the left also wants the Biden administration to pass electoral reforms and a comprehensive immigration package. Finally, it is pushing for a minimum wage increase and wants to fire the Senate parliamentarian to prevent several liberal priorities from being filibustered.

Moderates, on the other hand, have their own case to make. They are concerned by the twin specters of popularity and cost. Moderates see their preferred policies, such as infrastructure spending, as much more popular than those of their opponents on the left. A majority of voters support new spending on infrastructure, although infrastructure spending is not nearly as popular as the coronavirus relief bill. Republican support for infrastructure is relatively high as well. Other Democratic priorities such as immigration reform are generally popular, but they have more vehement Republican opposition and would be more of a political flashpoint. They are also not as popular in red states with Democratic senators like West Virginia.

In addition, moderates such as Joe Manchin appear sincere about their concerns over the deficit. Republicans, of course, voted for deficit-busting tax cuts and spending programs throughout the Trump administration. Their deficit complaints are not to be taken seriously. But Joe Manchin and several other moderate Democrats voted against the tax cuts even as they voted for several Trump nominees. At some point, they will raise the familiar specter of a debt spiral in order to argue for a cessation of new programs.

The president will try as he always does to placate both groups. The moderates have nothing to worry about. It is difficult for leftists to pass a bill over the wishes of a moderate Senate and a moderate White House. While Biden has shown flexibility in raising the deficit, leftists will have a hard time pushing him to adopt anything that is not popular across the electorate. Biden certainly remembers how Republicans demagogued the vulnerable points in his Democratic predecessor’s health care plan.

The president also wants to perform as well as he can in his first midterm election. While only three presidents of the past 100 years actually gained congressional seats in a midterm, John F. Kennedy lost only four House seats in his midterm election, and Ronald Reagan actually gained Senate seats in his second midterm. There is certainly the possibility for Biden to keep Democratic losses low, which he could then make up in what is usually a beneficial reelection cycle for an incumbent’s party. Attempting to pass something only marginally unpopular could lead to a repeat of the situations in which Democrats were hammered in midterm elections, such as with Franklin Roosevelt (on court packing), Bill Clinton (health care reform), and Barack Obama (health care reform again).

But Biden will still try to pass another large, popular program that those on the left will love. The best way to prime a party for a midterm election is to be successful and show that the American people will actually enjoy two more years of a trifecta government. Producing results for the American people, in the form of new jobs and improved bridges and airports, may help remind voters of Biden’s successes long after they have spent their $1400 check. Just like with the stimulus bill, leftists should look forward to being pleasantly surprised again.

I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week.

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