While much of the media is hailing Joe Biden as a 21st-century FDR, there are some warning signs on the horizon.
“Go big” is the unofficial slogan of the new White House, but how big is too big? Meaning, how much major change—and new spending–can the political system swallow before choking?
At the moment, the man who the pundits essentially wrote off during the early primaries is off to a reasonably strong start. Whatever you think of his liberal agenda, Biden has delivered on the intertwined issues of the pandemic and the economy, and the polls reflect that. They also reflect that he has botched the growing migrant crisis on the border.
But having pushed through $1.9 trillion in economic aid, Biden is just getting started. He plans to press for another $3 trillion in new programs, ranging from infrastructure to climate change. These are staggering numbers: the federal budget for fiscal year 2020 is $4.7 trillion. So Biden is proposing to spend a combined total greater than the country’s annual outlay for everything from Medicare to the military, and of course the feds have been in the red for decades.
The administration says the next round will be paid for by raising taxes on the highest earners as well as corporations, which saw their rate slashed from 35 to 21 percent during the Trump years. But some moderate Democrats are already pushing back on the anticipated scope of the tax hikes, which is a problem given the party’s razor-thin margins in both houses.
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What’s driving this? The Washington Post says that with nearly 80 percent of the top 50 jobs going to Obama veterans, Biden’s opening act has “provided the Democratic Party with a rare ‘do-over’ — a chance to enact wide-ranging agenda items far more quickly and on a larger scale than in 2009.” The prevailing wisdom now is that Obama was too timid with his stimulus and wasted too much time negotiating with the other party.
Beyond the big bucks and efforts against child poverty, the president is also pushing stricter gun control and comprehensive immigration reform, two of the hottest of hot-button issues. But he left the impression last week, in talking about the importance of “timing,” that he wouldn’t allow the rest of his agenda to be derailed by these thorny challenges.
Leon Panetta, Obama’s Pentagon chief, told the Post that “the biggest danger for Joe Biden is wanting to move very fast without bringing the American people with him in terms of some of these objectives.”
And that is precisely the kind of overreach that has plagued modern presidents, particularly after they notch their first legislative victory.
George W. Bush couldn’t get immigration reform or Social Security privatization. Barack Obama couldn’t get gun control or a host of other initiatives after his first two years. Donald Trump couldn’t repeal ObamaCare or strike an immigration deal.
For the moment, the Biden team has to feel good. In an ABC/Ipsos poll, 72 percent approve of his handling of the coronavirus, and only 28 percent disapprove. Three-quarters approval of his handling of vaccine distribution. And six in 10 give him positive marks on the economy. Those are stunning numbers in this era of political polarization.
As for the partisan breakdown, 92 percent of Democrats approve of Biden’s vaccination efforts, but so do an impressive 53 percent of Republicans. (He gets lower GOP scores on other questions.)
In the same poll, though, 57 percent of those surveyed disapprove of his handling of both gun violence and the border crisis, with the migrant surge likely to get worse before it improves.
Matthew Continetti, writing in National Review, argues that Biden is “risking Democratic control of Congress” by pushing massive liberal programs as hard as he has.
The piece reviews how presidents going back to FDR, LBJ and Ronald Reagan, despite their early popularity, got clobbered in the midterms. He might have added Bush (2006), Obama (2010 and 2014) and Trump (2018).
But Biden certainly likes the Roosevelt analogy, as Axios reported in describing a private session with such sympathetic historians as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jon Meacham, Michael Beschloss, Eddie Glaude, Walter Isaacson and Michael Eric Dyson.
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“In these early days, Biden’s presidency has been less a transformation than a continuation of the partisan stalemate that has existed since the end of the Cold War,” Continetti writes. “Parties win elections, misread electoral victories as ideological endorsements, overreach, and pay for it at the polls.”
We’re still in the first inning, though obviously, it would take only a handful of seats in the House and one in the Senate to flip control. No one knows how Biden will handle crises to come, just as Trump was optimistic in 2020 before the virus struck. Perhaps Biden is trying to get everything done at once because he knows that political popularity, and legislative advantage, can be fleeting.
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