Why Biden’s Win on Covid Relief Is a Big Deal
The Debt

Why Biden’s Win on Covid Relief Is a Big Deal

Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill is on track to become law on Wednesday, and while you may be understandably most concerned about what it means for you — how big a “stimulus check” you’ll get and when you can expect it — the massive package includes plenty of other provisions that are likely to have major effects on the country and add to the massive political implications of the legislation. Here’s why the American Rescue Plan could be an even bigger deal than you think.

It represents a monumental shift in policy thinking: The bill itself and its path to passage illustrate how the political landscape has changed since President Barack Obama’s roughly $800 billion stimulus package faced pushback from both Democrats and Republicans in 2009. The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein highlights the sea change in thinking about debt and deficits:

“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. Democrats also repeatedly tout the 2017 Republican tax cut, which is expected to add approximately $2 trillion to the national debt, as a reason to be skeptical of GOP concerns about fiscal restraint.”

Republicans opposed to the relief package may be criticizing its size and content, but the party’s recent messaging has focused on issues besides the rising debt. “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,” Dave Hopkins, a professor of political science at Boston College, told Stein.

And, potentially, an equally monumental political change: Democrats have portrayed the relief package as an opportunity to show the American public that Ronald Reagan was wrong when he said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.”

Party leaders have touted the idea that the package can demonstrate “that their government can work for them,” as Biden put it, and “that government actually is making their lives better,” as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said.

To some extent, that reflects the circumstances of the current crisis and the requirements for an effective national pandemic response — but Biden is making a bigger, longer-term bet, too, by planning to follow up on the relief bill with a potentially larger package investing in infrastructure and addressing climate change.

“The $1.9 trillion bill, which passed the Senate on Saturday, is a ‘BFD’ at both the ground level and the 10,000-foot one,” writes Eric Levitz at New York “The legislation’s immediate policy consequences are profound and far-reaching, while its most significant provisions represent paradigm shifts in the Democratic Party’s approach to governance, which is to say the law could plausibly mark a leftward realignment in American policymaking, at least if Biden & Co. continue to govern in its spirit.”

But Democrats still have work to do: Progressives may be heartened by the Biden plan, but Democrats still have a way to go before they can really claim to have delivered that “leftward realignment” in policymaking. The plan may be popular now, but Democrats still have to sell their plan — and Republicans believe they can turn public opinion against the legislation ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

Beyond the messaging battles, Democrats still want to make permanent some of the temporary social welfare benefits provided by the legislation — namely, an increased child tax credit and more generous subsidies for health insurance. “That task will be much harder than passing the initial legislation,” writes New York’s Jonathan Chait. Achieving it may require tax increases that won’t be easy to pass, he says: “While raising taxes on the rich is Democratic Party canon, getting 218 House Democrats and all 50 Senate Democrats to agree on a sizable tax increase on the rich is hardly assured. Any one Senate Democrat’s idiosyncratic objection can sink the whole plan.”