Joe Biden is less than two months into his presidency and has just scored his first major legislative achievement. But in many ways, he’s been here before.
Like in 2009, when he became vice president, Biden has inherited a national calamity. Like in 2009, his first job is to steady the country and guide it to safety. And like in 2009, the new administration’s first big bill is a rescue package meant to provide a bridge to brighter days.
But when Biden comes to Delaware County Tuesday touting his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, he’s hoping that what comes next is very different.
The president will be launching a nationwide blitz to hammer home the sprawling bill’s promised benefits for everyday Americans, correcting what many Democrats see as a political misstep by former President Barack Obama, who they now say failed to promote his $787 billion rescue plan, leaving it vulnerable to attack.
“It’s absolutely essential that the president spend some time walking through the provisions of this bill and what it means to communities across the country because I think that was a failure in the aftermath of the Recovery Act in 2009, and frankly that was a failure of people like me,” Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) said. “We all should have been talking about what was in that bill.”
Biden’s long-term legacy, and the short-term fate of Democrats’ fragile control of Congress, will likely hinge first and foremost on whether Americans believe he has delivered relief, recovery, and normalcy after one of the darkest periods in the country’s history.
“We can’t do anything until that happens, we can’t grow the economy, we can’t get people back to work,” Casey said. “I think that’s going to be a main metric by how people judge him.”
That’s partly why Biden and fellow Democrats, in another shift from 2009, quickly cast aside negotiations with Republicans, who had almost universally opposed Obama’s plans and favored a more modest approach this year. Instead, Democrats decided to go big this time, even if it meant going alone. Critiques about cost or a lack of bipartisanship in Congress, they believe, will fade if kids get back to school, parents return to work, diners go out to restaurants, and people feel more financially secure.
The stakes are clear in Biden’s schedule: He’ll be promoting the bill in swing states that were critical to his election and will again be vital to which party controls the Senate after the 2022 midterm elections.
He’s coming to Pennsylvania Tuesday before he and Vice President Kamala Harris travel to Georgia Friday. First lady Jill Biden on Monday visited Burlington County, in South Jersey, while Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, were in Nevada.
“You’ve got to tell people in plain, simple, straightforward language what it is you’re doing to help,” Biden said Friday at a ceremony celebrating the bill’s passage at the White House. “You’ve got to be able to tell the story, tell the story of what you’re about to do and why it matters, because it’s going to make a difference in the lives of millions of people in very concrete, specific ways.”
The relief package, hailed by some as the most ambitious social safety net expansion since the Great Depression, seems sure to be a pillar of Biden’s place in history. More immediately, it’s his first big swing at delivering on promises to pull the country through the pandemic and lift up poor and working-class Americans.
“This legislation is one of the most transformative and historic bills any of us will ever have the opportunity to support,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said just before it won final passage last week.
The measure includes $1,400 stimulus checks for nearly all Americans and their children; a massive expansion of tax credits for parents and low-income workers without children; an extension of $300 per week federal unemployment aid through September; $130 billion for schools; $350 billion for state and local governments; $25 billion for restaurants; money to help more people buy health insurance and food and pay rent, and an array of liberal priorities such as expanding internet access in urban and rural areas, rescuing pension plans, and paying debts of minority farmers.
Projections by liberal-leaning groups say it could cut child poverty by half, and raise incomes by $3,000 on average and by $7,700 on average for low-income families — though that’s based on provisions for one year only.
“For the first time in a long time this bill puts working people in this nation first,” Biden said Friday.
Republicans have attacked the plan as a liberal giveaway that spends far more than is needed, and enacts long-held Democratic ambitions — including infusing state governments with federal money — under the guise of pandemic aid. They blasted Biden for passing his first major bill without a single Republican vote, or even sustained negotiations.
“President Biden wants Americans to believe ‘help is on the way.’ But under this bill, it isn’t. Waste is,” said the House’s top Republican, Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.).
U.S. Rep. John Joyce (R., Pa.) called it “a progressive wish list that prioritizes political stunts over support for hardworking Americans.”
But there hasn’t been a sustained line of attack as polls suggest the plan has gained traction, and the GOP has focused its energy more on culture war issues, closed schools, and a growing influx of migrants crowding facilities at the southern border.
The rescue plan starts with broad public support. Some 70% of Americans favor the bill, the Pew Research Center found, including 41% of Republicans. Support climbed even higher among low-income Republicans, to 63%.
Democrats have to hope those feelings remain, because they may not get many more chances at major legislation. Even this big early achievement showed the limits of their power.
Democrats moved the measure through the Senate using special “reconciliation” rules that allow them to pass a bill with 51 votes, instead of the 60 required by the filibuster. That led to some defeats that frustrated the party’s liberal wing, including the realization that they don’t have even a bare majority to pass the $15 minimum wage.
Senate rules say Democrats can only use reconciliation once more this year, and because the procedure is for fiscal policy, it likely won’t apply to many of their other priorities, including voting rights, immigration, policing, gun laws, and climate change.
Tackling those issues could depend on altering the filibuster or eliminating it — a difficult task given the reluctance of some moderate Democrats — or expanding their majority in 2022 to win more leverage.
But midterm elections almost always go against the party in power.
Obama (with his rescue plan and the Affordable Care Act) and former President Donald Trump (with his tax cuts ) each saw their early achievements meet sour public receptions. Their parties lost control of the House two years after they took office, dooming their remaining legislative agendas.
Democrats hope this plan, and a return to normalcy, can help them defy history. Biden acknowledged that much will depend on whether it delivers.
“This is not over. Conditions can change. We’re not finished yet,” he said. “It’s one thing to pass the American Rescue Plan, it’s going to be another thing to implement it.”
A year ago last week, Biden was campaigning for the Democratic nomination in Detroit, packing supporters into high school gyms just days before the coronavirus upended American life. Many there fondly recalled the auto industry rescue he spearheaded in 2009, though that didn’t help him or Obama in the 2010 election. Biden’s new campaign, as president, is to ensure this rescue package produces better short-term political results.
Vincent Hutchings, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, said Biden’s fate “may well hinge on voters remembering in November 2022 the good feelings that they have for this bill.”