Joe Biden wants to overtake Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The current president’s love for the 32nd president is well known; he’s given Roosevelt’s portrait a place of honor in the Oval Office, invited New Deal historians to the White House and encouraged comparisons between today’s crisis of democracy and the calamities the country faced during the Great Depression. When Biden announced in February that he wanted to “change the paradigm” on economic thought, he was opening a battle to return Democrats to the muscular liberalism of figures like FDR and Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Now, he’s declaring victory, recently telling House Democrats that his Build Back Better program would cap an economic agenda greater and more significant than FDR and LBJ combined.
The president is getting a bit carried away. Its many merits notwithstanding, Biden’s economic plan simply does not compare in either scope or ambition to the New Deal or the Great Society. The Build Back Better legislation, which is tortuously winding its way toward a potential House vote this week does, however, reflect a clear change in the intellectual wind. Democrats are almost entirely united behind Biden’s economic vision — which is why Biden keeps invoking FDR and LBJ when selling the plan to his party.
Two of the final holdouts to this new consensus, of course, happen to be sitting U.S. senators who hold veto power in an evenly divided Senate. And as the disappointing results for Democrats in Tuesday’s elections show, their party is paying a dear political price for their penchant for gridlock. But whatever injury Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) ultimately inflict on Biden’s plan or his presidency, their effective ostracism by the party rank-and-file in an age of hyperpartisanship is telling. By repeatedly positioning themselves outside the Democratic mainstream, Manchin and Sinema have handed Biden a victory in the battle of ideas, even as they force him to scale back his policy ambitions.
Indeed, the center of gravity in the party has fundamentally shifted. The establishment, led by Biden — no one’s idea of a left-winger — is shrugging off the market-friendly mindset of the Clinton and Obama eras. A new gospel for Democrats has arrived, centered on aggressive federal intervention to improve people’s lives, and it’s unlikely to fade no matter what happens to Biden’s agenda.
The latest framework for talks — a messy floor fight is still likely before Biden actually signs something into law — has three core components. There’s about half a trillion dollars for child care and working parents, half a trillion for green jobs and three quarters of a trillion in smaller projects, most of which could have found a place as an individual item in a typical annual appropriations bill. We can exclude this third category from any grand declarations about intellectual paradigms and schools of thought, since collections of small, useful projects can be found under any administration of almost any ideological tenor (itself one of the enduring legacies of the New Deal).
Manchin and Sinema have done most of their damage by killing off revenue sources that could have been used to pay for more ambitious programs. Manchin wouldn’t accept higher taxes on billionaires and Sinema has refused to countenance a major prescription drug price reform that would save money for both households and the government. And so a very good $327 billion plan to combat housing inflation has transformed into a $150 billion boost to affordable housing. That’s the story with just about everything in category three: Lots of good and useful initiatives, but not the stuff of enduring presidential legacies.
Deficit doves have pinned some of the blame for these progressive disappointments on Biden. In this line of thought, if the president hadn’t insisted that this package be paid for with new tax revenue or cuts to existing programs, Sinema and Manchin wouldn’t have so easily constrained everything on the other side of the ledger. But this misreads the motivations in play. Neither Manchin nor Sinema is a hardcore deficit hawk — otherwise, they wouldn’t have put their names on a separate bipartisan infrastructure deal that adds hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit. For whatever reasons, the two senators are looking for excuses to distance themselves from Biden, and the funding mechanism for Build Back Better just happened to be there. In other cases, the duo have been perfectly willing to say things that make no sense and do things that weird people out if it means giving Biden or the party a headache. They’d just be doing more of that — including screaming about the national debt — if Biden weren’t insisting on keeping the bill deficit-neutral.
The New Deal was big. Excluding World War II spending — a dubious distinction, but useful in its own way — New Deal spending totaled roughly $41.7 billion, equivalent to about 40 percent of U.S. GDP in 1929, the peak year before the Great Depression. Adding up the three Biden proposals for 2021 — the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill from March, the $500 billion bipartisan infrastructure deal and the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better plan, Biden’s agenda tops out at $4.15 trillion — slightly over 19 percent of 2019 GDP.
In general, however, it’s a mistake to rely heavily on spending amounts when measuring the changes that FDR and LBJ brought to American life. It’s true that both presidents spent a lot of money, but the way they spent it was at least as important. Both established new roles for American government in addressing major social problems — FDR created Social Security and the modern administrative state; LBJ secured Medicare, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, while expanding just about everything good that FDR did to provide more for more families. Most people can’t really imagine what the government would be like without these changes: We’ve accepted that banks are regulated and farms are subsidized and food stamps exist (and local post offices and schools and libraries and … you get the idea).
If the Build Back Better commitments on child care and green energy were to be made permanent, both would qualify as the type of governing innovations worthy of the New Deal or the Great Society. Despite all the rhetoric from politicians in both parties about the dignity of working families, the United States has a very poor record supporting working parents, when measured against other prosperous nations. The U.S. government spends only about $500 a year per child on toddler care, with the vast majority of child care spending restricted to children living in poverty. The average for nations belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, by contrast, is more than $14,000 per year, per child — with benefits available to families firmly ensconced in the middle class. Even Viktor Orban’s far-right Hungarian regime spends more than 14 times what the U.S. government spends on child care.
Build Back Better is a very serious plan to fix that. Biden’s plan would guarantee universal pre-Kindergarten for 3- and 4-year olds around the country and provide serious aid — typically about $100 per child per week – to 90 percent of all families with young children (only households making more than $300,000 a year would be wholly excluded from child care benefits). If Biden could give it a name and make it permanent, his child care program would be a Social Security-style achievement.
But here again the revenue problem has quite literally taken a toll. Biden’s child care funding only lasts six years. Three years in, state governments are required to foot 10 percent of the bill — meaning red states may choose to kill the program off early, much the way they rejected the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. The progressive hope of course is that these initiatives will prove popular and will be extended. But lawmakers have made extending those programs more difficult by setting hard expiration dates in order to cut costs. There’s nothing that Congress can do today to thwart a future Congress from enacting repeals, of course, but today’s lawmakers could at least make their future opponents actually pass a law to repeal it. That’s a serious hurdle these days; Congress just doesn’t pass much legislation anymore. Under the current language, everything Biden has proposed will die through inaction over the next few years unless Congress actively works to sustain it. Both FDR and LBJ were familiar with budget gimmicks, but their main work was designed to be permanent.
Meanwhile, the messaging vacuum from the White House has allowed right wing narratives on the economy to set in, namely that Biden rather than the pandemic is most to blame for rising inflation and supply-chain woes. Though we are surrounded with evidence that the economy is much better for workers today than it was even at its pre-pandemic peak — wages are up, consumption is up and savings are up, particularly for workers with lower incomes — people also increasingly tell pollsters that they are unhappy with the state of the economy. The party’s inability to execute on Biden’s agenda has also left Democrats around the country with nothing to run on, and on Tuesday night, voters showed Biden they’re willing to defect to Republicans if he can’t get things done.
So no, Biden will not have outclassed FDR and LBJ if he gets his Build Back Better program passed. But he will have initiated an important intellectual pivot for the party. The New Deal wasn’t just a year’s worth of government spending — it was a reform project that lasted more than a decade. Some historians even think it’s misleading to limit talk of the New Deal to Roosevelt’s presidency, defining the New Deal era as a paradigm spanning the 1930s through the 1970s. Many of the changes have proved permanent. When Roosevelt took office, annual government spending totaled about 3 percent of GDP. Today, a normal year is more like 20 percent (in 2019 it was about 30 percent, and higher last year as economic growth collapsed and federal rescue funding was released). These things all had to start somewhere, and so does Biden. A big plan to sustain child care aid and green job growth makes sense given the challenges facing American families and the otherwise grim outlook on climate change.
Biden also has the chance to reshape the role of government regardless of what he can push through Capitol Hill, using the power of the executive branch. And his appointments reflect the party’s progressive drift from the center: He has named anti-monopoly stalwart Lina Khan to run the Federal Trade Commission, Big Tech bete noir Jonathan Kanter to run the antitrust division at the Department of Justice and progressive rising star Rohit Chopra to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. His picks for both SEC chair and the nation’s top bank regulatory job are aces when it comes to countering Wall Street tricks surrounding financial derivatives (the nasty contracts that fueled the 2008 meltdown), and he has assembled the most progressive Council of Economic Advisers since LBJ.
Whether these glittering resumes will be put to good use remains to be seen. Biden also took his time filling out his administration, and a lot of agencies still aren’t up to speed yet, so we can’t really say whether these people are living up to the legacies of their New Deal heroes or not. But this is clearly an economic team that sees the world the way New Dealers saw it, not the way Bill Clinton did.
Biden may still struggle to build on his agenda beyond this year’s efforts, particularly if Democrats lose the House or Senate in 2022. Sinema and Manchin have made clear they aren’t interested in helping, and while Sinema has been almost entirely silent about her views, Manchin has been open about his opposition not only to Biden’s plans, but his ideas.
“I don’t believe we should turn our nation into an entitlement society,” Manchin said recently, explaining his opposition to Biden’s plans. This wasn’t a slip of the tongue — he repeated it a week later. Manchin’s zeal for restricting aid to the poorest, for imposing work requirements on benefit recipients, and for otherwise injecting bureaucratic headaches between citizens and their government is very much a rejection of Biden’s vision for government itself.
“It’s time we remembered that we the people are the government,” Biden told Congress in April. “You and I. Not some force in a distant capital. Not some powerful force we have no control over.” Where Biden sees government as an expression of democracy, Manchin views it as a form of tampering with the natural order of things.
But while Manchin has succeeded in paring down much of Biden’s agenda, his success is a result of stubbornness, not rhetorical persuasion. He is almost entirely alone and losing the intellectual battle in his party, and he knows it.
“I don’t ever remember FDR recommending sending a damn penny to a human being,” Manchin told the Washington Post earlier this year. “We gave ’em a job and gave ’em a paycheck … Do we have to keep sending checks out?”
Manchin should familiarize himself with Social Security before repeating this declaration, but the very fact that he felt compelled to invoke Roosevelt reveals the strength of Biden’s position. Democrats like the idea of New Deal governance in the 21st century. That’s why Manchin has been greeted with such a blistering reception. A recent piece from the lefty feminist site Jezebel muses on which particular circle of hell from Dante’s Inferno Manchin belongs in. And Manchin is not only taking heat from the left. An array of centrist Democratic voices have heaped scorn on him. Even conservative columnist David Brooks — following a new openness to progressive spending programs in some corners of the intellectual right — envisions a more expansive role for government than Manchin does; he’s called for a Build Back Better program roughly double the size of what Biden is currently pursuing.
Manchin’s polling has weakened modestly over the year, though it’s not clear how much of this is due to the politics of West Virginia versus views of Manchin’s role in negotiations. But he knows that he’s become something of a pariah in the party, and has weighed bolting to become an independent. The day after Tuesday’s wipeout in Virginia, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi swiftly announced that providing paid leave — a policy Manchin had singlehandedly torpedoed — would be going back in the bill. Even the ultra-centrists at Third Way are pleading for him to pass Biden’s plan. Sinema, meanwhile, has paved the way for a potentially stiff primary challenge, as her approval rating among Democrats has plummeted.
Public opinion has also begun to sour on Biden personally, but the provisions of his Build Back Better plan remain highly popular. It’s a reminder that even if Biden ultimately only begins implementing a return to New Deal governance, it’s clear the voters are behind it. The debate over the future of the Democratic Party is all but over.
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