The Fate of American Democracy Rests on Bold Progressive Choices
Robert Kuttner on the Rooseveltian Origins of Biden’s Economic Recovery Plan
Between March 2020 and the summer of 2021, Joe Biden was the luckiest politician in living memory. After his feckless campaign for the Democratic nomination nearly collapsed in February, Biden gained a big win in the southern primaries, notably South Carolina, in March. Those wins created a bandwagon effect, and he quickly became the de facto nominee. Given the immense stakes of ousting Trump, Biden benefited from rare Democratic party unity, even from activists well to his left who had supported Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders.
More remarkably, surprise victories in two Georgia Senate races delivered Biden a bare majority in both houses of Congress. Thanks to Trump’s overreach and the loyalty to the republic of a few key Republicans, a coup was blocked and Biden was able to take office.
Progressives like me were grateful for the ouster of Trump, but we had few illusions about Joe Biden. Given his history, we expected that he would govern as the third centrist Democratic president in a row, not unlike Hillary Clinton had she been elected. That would have continued a toxic syndrome in which socially liberal Democrats are economically allied with Wall Street and fail to deliver for a disaffected and disrespected working class—who become easy prey for the likes of Trump.
But Biden surprised us all by resolving to govern in the spirit of FDR. His program of public investments and social supports was the boldest since Roosevelt. Better yet, it delivered concrete benefits to the very people who had been deserting Democrats for decades. The benefits were direct and easy to grasp. Biden was able to use the annual budget reconciliation process, which cannot be filibustered in the Senate, to enact the March 2021 emergency legislation titled the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA), which passed 219–212 in the House and 50–49 in the Senate, on straight party-line votes. Thanks to the $1.9 trillion package, the recession was abbreviated, suffering was reduced, and the economy ended 2021 with record growth and low unemployment.
Among its many accomplishments, ARPA provided $300 a month in extended unemployment compensation, direct payments of $1,400 to families, and a refundable child tax credit that really amounts to a universal basic income for families with children. The government sends parents of children monthly checks of $250 per child between the ages of six and seventeen, and $300 for kids under six. This basic income supplement, which is automatic and not means tested, cuts the child poverty rate in half. In addition, the law provided $350 billion to hardpressed state and local governments so that the recession would not be compounded by layoffs, $130 billion for public schools, and almost $40 billion for colleges and universities.
All of this was intended to help offset the economic damage and personal hardship of Covid. The law also provided upwards of $150 billion to defeat the pandemic, including $50 billion to underwrite vaccinations and another $48 billion for testing and contact tracing. Since all of this practical outlay goes to red states as well as blue ones, in normal times this legislation might have attracted some Republican support. But it received not a single Republican vote.
Thanks to ARPA, the poverty rate declined during a deep recession, something that had never happened before. Child poverty fell by almost half. Biden did not succeed in raising the minimum wage, but the income supports and the robust recovery gave workers rare bargaining power to hold out for terms well above the minimum wage. A week after signing ARPA on March 11, Biden met with a group of presidential historians at the White House and resolved to go even bigger.
Equally superb were Biden’s appointments and his revision of the economic conventional wisdom about everything from budget balance to free trade. More than any president since FDR, Biden has embraced labor unions. His support for extensive industrial policies to rebuild American manufacturing and mitigate climate change evokes Roosevelt’s national mobilization during World War II.
The idea of governing like Roosevelt with a working majority of three in the House and zero in the Senate was as risky as it was audacious. But I will argue that reclaiming FDR’s legacy was and is exactly what the country needs.
Biden’s luck held through the summer of 2021. The pandemic was winding down; the recovery was gathering force; he made no unforced political errors; party unity continued in Senate confirmation of key appointees, who were the most progressive lot since FDR. Biden’s approval ratings in the polls were far from stratospheric. Some 40 percent of Americans were Trumpers no matter what Biden delivered, but his ratings were more than serviceable. Voters approved of Biden by a margin of about fifteen points overall from February through June. An even higher percentage liked specific elements of his program.
And then Lady Luck deserted Biden. Though his administration was handling the pandemic far better than Trump had, Covid had its own rhythms. In a fourth wave beginning in late July, cases started surging and the promised economic reopening had to be deferred, leaving voters—parents, workers, and ordinary people needing a respite—frustrated and cranky. A supply chain crisis several decades in the making spiked consumer price inflation.
In August, Biden’s resolve to end America’s interminable entanglement in Afghanistan produced a messy final exit. Historians will long debate whether any exit could have been executed more cleanly. In fact, voters supported the decision to leave Afghanistan by a margin of 73 to 27. But the images of people desperate to get out and government forces being routed cost Biden dearly.
Democrats who had been uncharacteristically united in the spring then indulged their differences in the fall. A small splinter of corporate Democrats in the House blocked Biden’s full program. By the time a compromise delivered part of Biden’s infrastructure bill, Election Day was long past and Democrats paid the political price. Biden looked weak and inept. This stalemate cost Democrats the governorship of Virginia, as well as many state and local legislative seats that were up on the off-off-year election, and the enthusiasm of voters.
By Labor Day, Biden’s approval ratings were negative and steadily worsening. By November, voters disapproved of his performance by as much twenty points, though his popularity began to rebound once Congress finally acted on his program.
Some have argued that Biden overreached, and that it’s time for him to repair to the center. Even the New York Times, which had strongly supported Biden’s program, published a perverse editorial after the November election defeats, titled “Democrats, Get Real.” According to the Times editorial board, “Tuesday’s results are a sign that significant parts of the electorate are feeling leery of a sharp leftward push in the party.”
The editorial also contended that the Democrats suffered election losses because “the party has become distracted from crucial issues like the economy, inflation, ending the coronavirus pandemic and restoring normalcy in schools and isn’t offering moderate, unifying solutions to them,” and called on Biden to embrace bipartisanship.
That logic, which echoes and reinforces the conventional wisdom, is backward. What cost the Democrats last November was not their leftism but the spectacle of a governing party that looked like it couldn’t govern. Biden was plenty popular after enactment of his first New Deal–scale program, ARPA, in March. The elements of his bolder programs of infrastructure investments and social supports are immensely popular as well.
With minor exceptions, there is little bipartisanship to be had. Biden could move toward the center or even the center right, and that would not produce more Republican support in the Senate, where the Republican playbook is to undermine the Biden presidency no matter what he proposes and to destroy American democracy along with it. The thirteen House Republicans who did vote for the “bipartisan” stripped-down infrastructure bill that passed in November were vilified as traitors by their colleagues. Several are not running for reelection.
Most importantly, America urgently needs the kind of New Deal that Biden is promoting. Corporate concentration has reached a peak not seen since the Gilded Age, with the result that all of the economy’s net gains go to billionaires and most working families are earning less in real terms than a generation ago. Intensified corporate use of outsourcing and contract work has deprived tens of millions of Americans of decent jobs and earnings.
Decades of disinvestment in basic public infrastructure have left the country with outmoded basic systems of water, electric power, and public transportation and woefully unprepared for the added investments to protect against the ravages of climate change and to move to renewable energy. The loss of basic manufacturing has cost America both jobs and regional activity, as well a heavy reliance on China for supply chains. The supply chain fiasco, in turn, caused bottlenecks and inflation.
Biden’s original ten-year infrastructure plan addressed long-neglected public needs. It included $556 billion to invest in U.S. manufacturing and supply chains; $387 billion for schools and other public buildings; $100 billion for broadband; $111 billion for water infrastructure; $151 billion for rail and public transit; $82 billion to modernize power grids; $363 billion in clean energy subsidies and tax credits; $157 billion for electric vehicles; $154 billion for roads and bridges; $42 billion for ports and airports. These are ten-year totals.
By the time Congress belatedly pass the much-diminished compromise that Biden signed on November 14, the total had been slashed to $550 billion in new spending over ten years. The funds for manufacturing and clean energy were eliminated entirely. The package did keep funding for urgently needed public investments such as water and power infrastructure, rail and mass transit, though at reduced levels. Republican legislators will take credit for these in ribbon-cutting ceremonies in their districts, even though most voted against it.
The pandemic revealed the stresses on working families in a country that lacks social supports that are universal in much of the West—comprehensive and universal health coverage; publicly sponsored and subsidized pre-kindergarten and childcare; decent and well-compensated nursing and home care; free or affordable higher education with no student debt; paid family and medical leave. Biden’s program made a start on providing these supports to all families. These are the kinds of programs that are politically hard to enact—and broadly popular once enacted.
At its original scale of $3.5 trillion over a decade, Biden’s Build Back Better program was a down-payment on the social investments that America has needed for decades, and the even larger investments in climate resilience we will need going forward. Its particulars propose the most imaginative uses of public policy and public investment since Roosevelt. With unrelenting Republican opposition and the intransigence of Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, Biden had to settle for less. But these programs serve ordinary Americans and are good politics once enacted. It would be a travesty to conclude that Biden dreamed too big.
As approved by the House on November 9, the bill extended the near-universal child tax credit for a year (after which it will be hard to repeal). The bill provided $150 billion for better home health care, both for the frontline care workers and for people who need it. It also provided half a trillion dollars for clean energy, including $144 billion for renewable electricity, and additional funding for electric vehicles and public transportation.
At a time of scarce affordable housing and waiting lists for vouchers and public housing, the measure provided over $100 billion for housing assistance. Even with the deeper cuts demanded by Joe Manchin as a condition of enactment by the Senate, it is the most impressive expansion of basic social insurance since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
With the 20-20 wisdom of hindsight, one can fault Biden tactically, for failing to make an earlier deal with Manchin for a smaller Build Back Better. But Biden had progressives in Congress to contend with. And Manchin, with personal interests in coal, was also demanding that Biden scrap of much of the climate agenda. These Monday morning quarterback criticisms also excuse Republicans, especially supposed moderates like Senators Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski. If even one of these worked with Biden, Manchin’s opposition would be far less potent. Biden’s tactical flaws pale compared to Republican evils in wanting to ignore urgent needs entirely and kill our democracy.
Excerpted from Going Big: FDR’s Legacy, Biden’s New Deal, and the Struggle to Save Democracy by Robert Kuttner. Copyright © 2022. Available from The New Press.