Biden’s start left, then move center strategy

President Joe Biden must thread a small needle with two big new spending proposals. He is attempting to do so, by starting left and “going big;” he then expects moderate Senate Democrats to pull his plans back to the middle, thereby making them more appealing to his suburban supporters. His approach presages his strategy over the next two years; it also likely will determine his administration’s success. 

Biden closed his first 100 days in office by proposing the second of two enormous — and enormously ambitious — domestic spending initiatives. In his April 28 speech to a joint session of Congress, Biden unveiled his American Families Plan aimed at education and health care, primarily targeting children; it is estimated to cost from $1.8 trillion to $2.5 trillion. It would be paid for by taxes on wealthy individuals. 

This American Families Plan is the counterpart to his earlier, and larger, American Jobs Plan. The $2.3 trillion American Jobs plan is a broadly defined infrastructure plan that goes beyond traditional roads and bridges to broadband and housing access. It would be paid for by higher corporate taxes.

Together this $4 trillion-plus in new spending is more than double the earlier $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 relief that Biden signed into law at the beginning of his presidency. It is also more than twice as ambitious and difficult. Biden is staking much on his two new expansive and expensive proposals. 

Biden also appears to be staking his presidency on an equally expansive strategy of starting from the left and then letting moderates in his base move him toward the center. By doing this, Biden hopes to appeal to both and, more importantly, be absolved by both when the process yields an outcome that fails to fully satisfy either. If successful, this will allow Biden to continue working with both and maintain his presidency’s early momentum.

Of course, Biden’s strategy for these bills and his presidency is only as sound as it is effective. Biden must first succeed in walking — even if these bills constitute huge steps — before he can run. Although Biden signed the huge American Rescue Plan less than two months ago, there are many difficulties in his pursuit of the next two that did not exist before.  

As large as the American Rescue Plan was, it still amounted to well under half the combined size of Biden’s two current proposals. Biden’s two current proposals have a combined estimated cost of $4.1 trillion to $4.8 trillion; to put it in perspective, that is almost the size of what the federal government has spent on COVID-19 relief ($5.3 trillion). Even with substantial proposed offsets, the risk of fiscal fatigue among moderate Democrats in Congress exists.

Ironically, the economy presents another potential problem. When Biden entered office, the economy’s performance still seemed in question and helped justify the aggressive American Rescue Plan. In the quarter since, and with each new emerging variable, recovery appears more certain but takes away from the argument that more must be done. The more the economy progresses, the better it may be for Biden, but the worse it could be for his two proposals.  

Taxes are another new problem. Yes, they help address increasing debt concerns, but they also guarantee opposition — at least from those who would pay them. And $4 trillion in additional taxes assures a lot of opposition.

The current plans also lack the earlier deadline momentum. The American Rescue Plan had several factors propelling it: The expiration of enhanced unemployment benefits; the urgency of a still uncertain economy; and Democrats’ desire to have Biden succeed in his first 100 days. Now, there is no unemployment insurance deadline, the economy is no longer very doubtful and Biden’s first 100 days are past. Without such momentum, these major pieces of legislation risk stalling under their own magnitude.  

The process too will be difficult. Just as with the earlier American Rescue Plan, Democrats’ narrow majorities and lack of Republican support mean they must rely on the special legislative procedure known as reconciliation. While reconciliation allows legislation to avoid filibusters, it also comes with limitations — remember that the American Rescue Plan dropped a minimum wage hike for this reason. Such limitations could make passing these far larger and more complex plans more difficult than the earlier one.

And other problems remain from Democrats’ earlier large spending bill. As noted, Democrats’ majorities are even smaller now. They cannot afford to lose a single Democrat vote in the Senate, and currently they can lose only two in the House with its 218-212 balance. Republican resistance will likely be even higher: If Republicans opposed the earlier smaller package that lacked tax increases and was aimed ostensibly at COVID-19 relief, how much more will they oppose a package over twice as large with $4 trillion in new taxes?

Still the most important difficulty in the coming attempt will be maintaining Democratic unity. Will both wings within the party continue to support the process when they increasingly see the other wing prevailing at their expense? This answer will determine the outcome for Biden here, but also likely his entire term. 

Biden must not only have the left and center wings of his party working together to govern, he must have them working in virtual unanimity. To succeed, both must see Biden as an honest broker and supporter of their interests, even as he fails to deliver for them — as he almost certainly must on elements of his two huge proposals.

To say Biden has a lot riding on his plans’ success is an understatement. More than the plans themselves, his entire approach to governing is at stake here: Start left and move center. Despite Biden’s plans’ mega size, they also are a microcosm of his presidency. 

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.

Tags American Families Plan American Rescue Plan Biden presidency COVID-19 relief package economy Joe Biden left moderate Democrats tax increase

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