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When I asked Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign, what the former vice president’s plan for his first 100 days in office was, her answer was blunt.
“Wouldn’t everybody like to know?”
Sanders was being coy — in fact, she had just finished walking me through Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda, an umbrella term that the campaign has been using for policies meant to aid the economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis.
But the answer is yes: Everybody would like to know what Joe Biden would do were he to take office. And the formal platform on which he’s running, and his five-decade record as a public servant, offer markedly different predictions as to what a Biden presidency would look like.
Biden is attempting to take office amid a world-historic crisis, which has already claimed more American lives than World War I, Korea, and Vietnam combined and has produced the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression. By May, advisers were telling New York magazine’s Gabriel Debenedetti that Biden wanted an “FDR-sized” administration.
There are aspects of Biden’s policy agenda that rise to this level of ambition. To tackle Covid-19, he’s promised nationwide testing, a 100,000-person Public Health Jobs Corps, hazard pay for essential workers, massive vaccine stockpiles produced ahead of approval for the speediest deployment, and much more.
His economic recovery plan would pay health insurance costs for newly unemployed people, offer middle-class parents and caretakers $8,000 a year for child or long-term care support, spend $700 billion on manufacturing and R&D to expand jobs in those sectors, and make it easier to organize unions.
But there is a tension between this ambition and the man himself. For all of the avowed boldness of an agenda shaped by Covid-19, the man pitching it remains … Joe Biden. He is a creature of the establishment, a product of a Democratic Party built for the (relative) boom times of the 1980s and ’90s, a Senate from a less polarized era, and an Obama administration that believed it could transcend Washington (it could not).
When you talk to his campaign, you can see glimpses of that Biden. Yes, he’s proposing these multitrillion-dollar plans — but his advisers insist he’s a deficit hawk at heart. “The vice president has said from the beginning of the campaign that he wants to show how he’s going to pay for all of the long-term costs of the investments that he makes,” senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan, who also served as a key policy staffer to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and was Biden’s national security adviser in 2013-14, says.
His campaign also seemed to back away from an earlier hint that Biden might support blowing up the Senate filibuster if the Republicans abuse it to block his agenda. Biden “has not supported the elimination of the filibuster,” Sanders told me. “I don’t think anyone should read his comments as saying he supports that.”
Ted Kaufman, who took Biden’s Delaware Senate seat in 2009 and has been a loyal aide to the former vice president for decades, remembers that the last time Biden entered the White House, Senate Republicans chose to block absolutely everything the Obama-Biden administration tried. My question, I told Kaufman, was what would Biden do if Senate Republicans do the exact same thing again?
We shouldn’t be too despondent, he said. Biden worked out deals with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, like the 2011 budget deal involving $1.2 trillion in brutal, across-the-board spending cuts. He’s willing to do the hard work to figure out “what is something everyone can agree on?” Kaufman sought to reassure me.
There are two visions of a Biden presidency. One involves sweeping investments in clean energy, new jobs, and a fast recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and recession.
The other involves McConnell forcing Biden into brutal, humiliating budget deals that usher in austerity and strangle the recovery in the crib.
Therein lies the fundamental tension in Biden’s candidacy: To enact his promised agenda, President Biden will have to be bolder than Sen. Biden and Vice President Biden ever were.
Biden’s four-point plan to “Build Back Better”
Joe Biden’s self-styling as the next FDR is, in some ways, natural. Both men ran for president amid a historic economic collapse that demanded massive government intervention to ameliorate the suffering of hundreds of millions of people.
As Vox’s Ella Nilsen has reported, some Biden advisers make the comparison explicitly, with economic adviser Jared Bernstein telling her, “Much like FDR faced a structural crisis of economic insecurity, we’re at a similar place. The vice president recognizes that the extent of market failure here is not something you can fix with a Band-Aid and that structural reforms are necessary.”
So what does Biden’s version of the New Deal, forged by the Covid-19 crisis, look like?
The best encapsulation comes out of the candidate’s “Build Back Better” plan. Ben Harris, who served as Biden’s chief economist from 2014 to 2017 and is currently a top economic adviser to the campaign, describes the plan as a road map for “recovery” over the medium to long run, not near-run stimulus relief.
“Relief is designed to plug the holes immediately, and recovery is designed to build a base for growth for the next decade,” Harris told me. “If you look at Build Back Better combined, it lays out his agenda for growth over the first term and beyond.”
Biden’s aides point to the plan as proof that Biden is not the tepid moderate his critics sometimes paint him as. “One of the things that’s differentiated him in the primary and has confused people is they say, ‘He’s moderate.’ No,” Kaufman says.
All four central planks are out now, and the campaign expects them to remain the top policy themes, and the top priorities of a Biden presidency.
Plank 1: Clean energy
In dollar terms, the biggest component of the plan is the $2 trillion commitment to investments in green energy over just four years. This is also, perhaps surprisingly, the part of Build Back Better with the longest history on the Biden campaign. He originally proposed an investment of $1.7 trillion over a decade in June 2019, well before any primaries had been held. The amount has been upped by $300 billion, but the rough scale of the commitment has been there for well over a year.
The actual spending will include subsidies creating jobs working on electric vehicles, infrastructure projects “from roads and bridges to green spaces and water systems to electricity grids and universal broadband,” and providing “every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options.”
The size of the investment is exceptionally large; for comparison’s sake, the coverage provisions of Obamacare had a gross cost, before taxes and penalties, of $938 billion over 10 years. Even adjusting for inflation and a larger economy, Biden’s $2 trillion plan is significantly bigger, especially if it’s spent over just four years rather than a decade. Perhaps even more important than the dollar amount is the clean energy standard embedded in the plan, which will mandate that all of America’s electricity come from carbon-free sources (whether solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, biomass, etc.) by 2035.
The plan’s ambition and sweep earned widespread acclaim from environmental activists. The Sunrise Movement, which gave Biden an “F-” grade for his climate policies during the primaries, put out a statement praising the plan, tweeting that it’s “a major step forward, & parts are more ambitious than what Bernie Sanders ran on in 2016, or Jay Inslee championed in 2020.” Julian Brave NoiseCat, director of Green New Deal strategy for Data for Progress, called the plan “a Green New Deal in all but name.”
Plank 2: Caregiving
The program includes pledges of universal pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds, a tax credit paying up to half of child care costs up to a maximum of $8,000 per child for families making under $125,000 a year, and subsidies ensuring that “no family earning below 1.5 times the median income in their state will have to pay more than 7% of their income for quality care,” with the typical family “pay[ing] no more than $45 per week.”
He’s also proposing a large tax credit for employers that build on-site child care centers, and other programs meant to increase the supply of child care services, not just subsidies for it.
Plank 3: “Made in All of America”
Next up is the investment of $700 billion over a decade that Biden has promised in “made in America” goods. The plan, called “Made in All of America” in recognition of its goal of reaching distressed rural, Rust Belt, Southern, and other neglected regions of the country, harks back to Biden’s focus on the manufacturing economy during his time as vice president.
The rhetoric on “reshoring” offshored jobs recalls the 2004 campaign, when John Kerry assailed “Benedict Arnold corporations,” and the 2006 midterms, where Democrats made a major issue over a Dubai corporation’s efforts to assume operations of six American ports.
The plan also promises $400 billion in direct US government purchases of goods manufactured in the US in addition to the purchases the government will make in the clean energy plan, plus $300 billion in R&D investments “from electric vehicle technology to lightweight materials to 5G and artificial intelligence.”
Plank 4: Addressing the racial wealth gap
The fourth and final pillar of Build Back Better is Biden’s plan to address the racial wealth gap.
Biden has no single headline policy for this, like reparations or baby bonds. Rather, he has attempted to weave investments in Black- and brown-owned businesses and communities throughout his other plans. Some $30 billion of the $300 billion in R&D spending as part of his Made in All of America plan, for instance, will go to the Small Business Opportunity Fund, with the goal of reaching Black- and brown-owned small businesses. His college affordability plan will make all public universities free for families with incomes under $125,000, but will also apply to private historically Black colleges and universities. He pledges that 40 percent of his $2 trillion in clean energy investments will go to “disadvantage communities.”
“It may feel like a list, but I think it’s an indication of his priorities, which are clean energy, the care agenda, infrastructure, reshoring, and the racial wealth gap,” Harris says. “Anyone who characterizes this as anything less than bold is just not paying attention.”
In some ways, Build Back Better undersells Biden’s ambition by not directing attention to some of his most sweeping proposals. His biggest anti-poverty plan is his proposal to make Section 8 housing vouchers an entitlement available to all eligible families, which could dramatically reduce homelessness and, per Columbia researchers, reduce poverty in America by a fifth. While alluded to in his racial wealth gap plan, this proposal doesn’t get top billing in any plank.
Even on health care, an issue Biden has noticeably deemphasized, he is promising big changes. His staff tells me that the public option he’s proposing will be available not just to people on the Obamacare exchanges, but people with employer-based coverage they dislike, and to large employers that want another option (similar to the Center for American Progress’s Medicare Extra for All Plan). Those combined provisions could mean that Biden’s public option pushes America strongly in the direction of single-payer, if employers and individuals flock to a cheaper public insurance option.
And, of course, there’s his plan to confront the Covid-19 pandemic. Biden focuses heavily on widespread testing and contact tracing, echoing a strategy that Nobel laureate economist Paul Romer and others have been urging since early in the crisis that promises to contain the outbreak even before a vaccine or reliable treatment is available.
Biden would hire “at least 100,000 Americans” to conduct contact tracing and “massively surge a nationwide campaign and guarantee regular, reliable, and free access to testing for all, including every worker called back on the job.” He would implement hazard pay for health and other “essential” workers, offer emergency paid leave, and invest heavily in preemptively producing vaccine candidates, so they’re ready to go when testing suggests they’re reliable.
How would he pay for all these proposals? While having nothing as flashy as Elizabeth Warren’s or Bernie Sanders’s wealth tax proposals, Biden’s tax plans would raise somewhere between $3.35 trillion and $3.67 trillion over a decade, according to a compilation of think tank estimates from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. The tax hikes are incredibly top-loaded. The corporate tax, which is mostly paid by (wealthy) owners of capital, would see its rate rise from 21 to 28 percent, raising about $1.1 trillion to $1.3 trillion over a decade. The 12.4 percent Social Security payroll tax would start to apply on income above $400,000. Capital gains accrued by millionaires would be taxed as ordinary income.
These proposed tax hikes are substantially bigger than any of President Obama’s successful initiatives to raise tax rates on the rich. Obama pushed through a 0.9 percent surtax on high earners’ wages, and raised the top tax bracket on ordinary income from 35 percent to 39.6 percent. He thus raised the top marginal tax rate on the rich by 5.5 points. Biden’s Social Security tax plan alone would increase the marginal rate by 12.4 points, more than double Obama’s hikes.
Running through all of Biden’s spending proposals are his commitments on improving standards and wages for workers. Biden has supported a $15-per-hour minimum wage this whole campaign, a tenet of his candidacy that has received little attention because essentially all his primary rivals agreed. Woven through his plans to spend on clean energy, made-in-America goods, and caretaking are promises that all affected workers would get $15 an hour and be protected by the PRO Act, a sweeping piece of legislation proposed by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) that would impose new penalties on employers for anti-union organizing, expand the definition of “employer” for workers at franchise restaurants and gig economy companies like Uber, and ban state “right to work” laws.
“In every single piece of the Build Back Better plan, organized labor has been critical in helping develop the policy,” Stef Feldman, a Biden White House veteran who serves as policy director for the Biden campaign, told me. And people outside the campaign have noticed. Larry Mishel, the former longtime president of the Economic Policy Institute and one of the most prominent pro-labor economists in Washington, told the New York Times’s Michelle Goldberg that Biden’s plan was “as robust and fleshed out a policy suite on labor standards and unions” as he’d seen from a Democrat in his lifetime.
It’s not just Mishel. Biden has deeply consolidated support from just about every part of the progressive institutional infrastructure, not least through the unity task forces, which offered party activists and experts aligned with Bernie Sanders a chance to build the party platform in collaboration with Biden loyalists. Groups like Sunrise that were formerly thorns in Biden’s side have been brought inside the tent, where they can influence Biden internally without creating messy public drama.
“My support for Biden is in large part because he sees this campaign through the eyes of workers and he will govern through the eyes of workers,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), the loudest voice of the Democratic labor-liberal wing, told me. “It’s pretty clear whose side Biden’s on.”
The next FDR?
So Biden has plans. But here’s the question: Does he have a plan to pass his plans?
It’s an important question, given that this is Joe Biden we’re talking about. Neither of his prior presidential bids featured policy promises nearly this sweeping. In the 1980s and ’90s, he was a mainstream, even centrist Democrat who supported policies like a balanced budget amendment; in his 1988 presidential bid, he loudly rejected the idea that Democrats should move left and supported a freeze in federal spending. He was not as vocal a centrist as, say, Bill Clinton or Al Gore. But he was most certainly not a Bernie Sanders or Paul Wellstone acting as a left-wing thorn in the party establishment’s side.
In some ways, the tension between Biden’s grandiose proposals and his moderate past is the most Roosevelt-esque attribute of his campaign. Johns Hopkins political science professor Daniel Schlozman, who has studied the ways labor unions and other social movements influenced Roosevelt’s presidency, describes Biden as, like FDR, someone “notably aware of the influence of various organized groups and the strength and intensity of their preferences rather than someone with very deeply held views of his own on most policy questions.”
“Joe Biden’s philosophy of the economy is the same as his philosophy of everything else, which is to respond to the pressures before him,” Schlozman elaborates. This is similar to Roosevelt but distinctly unlike most other recent Democratic presidents. Barack Obama was a true technocrat with his own views on economic policy, influenced by a handful of advisers close to him, and would often act based on his personal convictions rather than the views of the Democratic Party at large (see, for instance, his policies on foreclosure relief). Bill Clinton often bucked the congressional party; Jimmy Carter’s feuds with the broader Democratic Party are the stuff of legend; even Lyndon B. Johnson had a tendency to push for his personal convictions when putting together policy packages like the Great Society.
But Roosevelt and Biden are different. Roosevelt was not seen as a liberal firebrand upon his election in 1932, but the gravity of the Great Depression, the power of the rapidly growing labor movement, and the threat from the left of mounting support for socialism and communism combined to turn him into the liberal icon he’s remembered as today.
Similarly, “the pressure in the Democratic Party is more from the left than from the center,” Schlozman observes. “The DLC is dead, Third Way is a zombie, deficit hawks were fooled twice by the Bush and Trump administrations. The jig is up.” That helps explain why Biden has moved left in his proposals.
Can an unapologetic institutionalist enact such a bold agenda?
But Roosevelt moved left in tactics, too. The New Deal was defined by “bold, persistent experimentation” in policies, and by Roosevelt’s eagerness to fight the Conservative Coalition in Congress and the courts in order to make that experimentation happened.
By contrast, in all my conversations with them, Biden’s advisers previewed a much more cautious and familiar approach from a President Biden.
The overriding message from everyone I spoke with was clear: Joe Biden is a man who knows how to get things done. Everyone on the team emphasizes that Biden is someone who can work with Republicans to get deals across party lines.
The dissonance between this model of legislating and Biden’s platform of large-scale welfare state expansion that no Republican in Congress would ever be caught dead supporting never seems to bother his policy advisers.
When I asked Harris if Build Back Better was designed to be passable through budget reconciliation — a procedure that allows legislation to bypass a Senate filibuster and pass with 50 votes plus the vice president — he suggested the answer was no.
What Biden would do, Harris explained, is leverage his relationships in the Senate to pass his agenda with bipartisan support. “I’ve spent a lot of time in the vice president’s office when he was vice president. I sat there when he called Democratic members, and I sat there when he called Republican members,” Harris recalled. “That’s what happens when you spend so many decades in the Senate is you build these friendships and you build these relationships and you build this credibility.”
“I think that the strategy for getting [Build Back Better] done is something that will be figured out in the months right before he takes office,” Feldman stressed. “We will fight to get Democrats to vote for it. We will fight to get Republicans to vote for it. During the Recovery Act legislative process, the VP worked hard to secure votes of three Republicans to get it done.”
Of those three Republicans who voted for the 2009 Obama stimulus, one switched parties a couple of months later and then lost reelection in the 2010 Democratic primary. Another retired in 2012. The third, Susan Collins of Maine, is trailing her Democratic challenger for reelection this year; if Biden gets a Democratic Senate majority, it will probably involve Collins leaving office.
So if Biden finds himself having to count to 60 senators to support Build Back Better, he will have to court more conservative Republicans than he did in 2009. And given that the three Republicans the Obama administration negotiated with that year successfully shrank the stimulus to much smaller than the economy needed, that precedent suggests that Biden in 2021 will once again be imploring Republicans to support any stimulus — and winding up with, if anything, a vastly insufficient package.
It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. Biden could echo President Obama, who recently called the legislative filibuster a “Jim Crow relic” and pushed for its abolition. A President Biden could use his authority as a 36-year veteran of the body to win over reluctant Democrats to the cause of abandoning the filibuster. His running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, promised to take this route during her own presidential bid, stating, “If [Republicans] fail to act, as president of the United States, I am prepared to get rid of the filibuster to pass a Green New Deal.”
But Biden appears to have little appetite to do that. Instead, he is betting that his charm and experience can win over Senate Republicans to back his agenda. Biden told donors at a fundraiser last November that, “With Donald Trump out of the way, you’re going to see a number of my Republican colleagues have an epiphany. Mark my words. Mark my words.” (To be fair, he has moved away from that language in more recent months, even as his advisers maintain his fealty to age-old Senate procedure has not wavered.)
Frances Lee, a political scientist at Princeton who studies congressional conflict, told me the incentives for Republicans to oppose stimulus under Biden will be powerful. “Republicans have stronger incentive to give way on their ideological principles of small government, deficit reduction, etc., when they need to support a president of their own party. The GOP was willing to support TARP or the enactment of Medicare Part D under George W. Bush,” she explains. (The latest piece of evidence? Overwhelming Republican congressional support for the massive Covid-19 relief package in the spring.) “I’d expect the GOP would be likely to revert to form under a President Biden.”
Left-leaning Democrats, like those involved in the Biden-Sanders unity task forces put in place to help plan the Democratic platform in the wake of the presidential primaries, also worry that Biden’s deficit hawkery will hem him in.
Darrick Hamilton, the Henry Cohen professor of economics and urban policy at the New School and a prominent expert on the racial wealth gap, served on the task force working on economic issues, as a Bernie Sanders pick. Hamilton favors sweeping economic initiatives, like a federal jobs guarantee to eliminate involuntary unemployment, a baby bonds program to target the racial wealth gap, and a dedicated reparations program.
He told me he had a positive experience on the task force, and is keen to emphasize that he is a strong supporter of Biden. He does, however, say that disagreements about the deficit were the most prominent dividing line within the task force’s discussions.
“The biggest obstacle on the left for a progressive agenda is PAYGO” — that is, the congressional rule requiring most spending to be “paid for” by tax hikes or spending cuts — Hamilton says. “This is not just Biden, this is the whole Democratic Party.” When he pushed ideas like a job guarantee, the critique from the Biden side of the task force centered on costs. “To their credit, they’ve made it clear that in this time of pandemic they’re willing to spend what is necessary to get us across,” Hamilton says. But in general, they’re wary of spending in the long run without extensive pay-fors.
Biden indeed has laid out in some detail how he’ll raise revenues to pay for his programs. “No one making less than $400,000 will pay a single cent more in taxes,” Ben Harris says. “And the vice president will pay for every last dollar of his long-term economic agenda.”
Biden’s tax hikes for the rich will surely be welcomed by progressives. But insisting on PAYGO could create new political challenges. What if to pass $2 trillion in clean energy spending, Biden does not merely need to convince Republicans to want to subsidize solar and wind power — already a tall order — but also needs to convince them to pay for it by dramatically hiking taxes on corporations and the rich?
When reminded of these challenges, the Biden camp is undeterred. “He has a number of various relationships and he knows how it works,” Symone Sanders says, summarizing how Biden will approach Congress. “We’re hoping that we have a Democratic majority in the Senate, but even if we do have a Democratic majority in the Senate, we will still have to be able to work with Republicans to get some things done. Given the rules, a majority doesn’t get you everything.”
The big question, then, is what a majority can get you — and whether it will be close to enough to confront Covid-19 and the economic devastation it’s unleashed on the country.
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