Why Biden’s COVID relief package may have changed everything
The Biden administration and its Congressional allies have not only achieved immediate political and economic victories with passage of their COVID relief legislation, they are winning in a third area that has profound long-term implications for the perennial public debate over the proper role of government. In sharp contrast to 1993 and 2009 when the advocacy of major reforms by new Democratic presidents met with strong voter resistance, none of the opposition’s arguments are gaining any traction with Americans. Biden observes his First Hundred Days with stellar popular approval of his management of the COVID crisis, and overall approval held back only by our polarization.
In fact, one of the arguments against Biden’s COVID-19 package was actually a justification for the decision to stick with the $1.9 trillion price tag: That’s the objection that — even after the small reduction resulting from dropping the un-Manchinables — the total spending in the legislation exceeded the one-year damage that the pandemic inflicted on the economy — and provides millions of lower- and lower-middle income people more than they lost.
Most Democrats would help publicize criticism that they don’t believe moderate income families before the pandemic were receiving all that they needed — and that before the pandemic the level of unemployment benefits was sufficient. The measure is a conscious choice to improve people’s economic position over what it was — especially for poor children.
Similarly, Joe Biden is helped rather than hurt by the charge that he is misremembering the history of his vice presidency when he acts on the premise that deferring to centrist Senate Republicans produced too weak a stimulus to power a speedy recovery in 2009.
The complaint is that refilling the economic tank beyond what was drained will lead to a damaging overflow.
In a striking role reversal, the most frequently voiced criticism of the Federal Reserve today is that they are handing out ladles for the punch bowl — instead of snatching it away — as the party threatens to get out of hand. Most importantly, critics have no actual evidence for the view that the Fed appointees of Donald Trump and Barack Obama are jointly enabling financial irresponsibility.
The idea that fending off a future threat that remains wholly theoretical should be a higher priority than dealing with the very real economic dislocation we have suffered — as a matter of policy — is redolent of the earlier era in which controlling inflation was essentially the only goal to which the Fed paid attention. The inaccurately high number at which unemployment had to be maintained in the service of that goal contributed significantly to the surge of support for angry populism that has marked this century.
Finally, even if the apprehension that inflation may kick in faster than Jay Powell and Janet Yellen anticipate proves accurate, they continue to have tools with which they are ready and able to respond. In addition to having greatly exaggerated the inflationary impact of a 4 percent jobless rate, the praetorian guards of restraint also overrated how quickly this could get out of hand.
The procedural criticism of the Biden-Pelosi-Schumer decision to rely solely on Democratic majorities to enact the legislation had three prongs. Of course, the one that said Democratic margins were too slim to succeed lost its validity when the effort in fact succeeded. So did the claim that public opinion would react negatively if the Democrats eschewed cross-party cooperation. The public judges by results; they leave it to political junkies to debate about strategies, tactics and processes.
The third warning — the prediction that having gone the one-party route once, Democratic leaders have doomed the possibility of working together in the future — simply isn’t true… and neither is the correlate that working together increases the likelihood of doing so again. Conceding to moderate Republicans by reducing the stimulus bill bought the Obama administration exactly nothing when they tried to win support for health legislation. Only when public opinion made it risky to oppose the financial reform, did a few Republicans become mostly supportive — not to be nice, but to survive.
The degree of bipartisanship going forward will continue to be determined by political considerations, not hurt feelings or the appeal of comradery. (Those who object to this should understand that if you don’t want political factors to influence important decisions, you shouldn’t ask 535 politicians to make them.)
The question for Democrats now is how to build on this early success to achieve favorable realignment of political forces in the future.
The short answer is by connecting the dots to break the vicious cycle.
Less cryptically, it means advising voters that specific results they welcome are not isolated acts but the product of the very government that the right wing has been demonizing.
This is good news for Democrats in the near term and holds the promise of a longer-range realignment of political forces.
Barney Frank represented Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 terms (1981-2013) and was chairman of the House Financial Services Committee from 2007 to 2011.
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