The Crisis President

Can Joe Biden spend his way out of a pandemic?

The Great Depression that Franklin D. Roosevelt faced and the Civil War that Abraham Lincoln confronted.

That’s how historian Doris Kearns Goodwin described the twin challenges awaiting Joe Biden in a Jan. 16 article in The Washington Post.

As if that weren’t enough, the new president has to clean up the mess left by his predecessor, who preferred stoking anti-government grievances over actual governing — meaning that Biden inherits a chaotic federal vaccination rollout that up until now has been largely left to ill-equipped states.

Biden will also have to contend with a Republican Party that was obstructionist at best during his tenure as vice president and is now in thrall to Donald Trump — or, at least, to his base, which still wields tremendous power (and which still doesn’t believe Biden won the election fairly).

Oh, and Biden has to go big to appease his own base, especially because Democrats hold thin majorities in both chambers of Congress, while also keeping his pledge to reach across the aisle.

And he’s basically got 100 days to do it.

In other words, he might’ve just signed up for the lousiest job in the world.

So far, though, Biden is not wasting any time on his ambitious plan to combat the pandemic.

He’s assembled a large roster of health experts and officials to coordinate the federal coronavirus response.

He’ll need all the help he can get because so far, there’s been no real coordinated federal response.

While the Trump administration deserves credit for pushing the development of vaccines, it never came up with a nationwide system to actually distribute those vaccines — a mammoth undertaking that’s a job for the federal government, not a patchwork of state and local governments.

This abdication isn’t too surprising considering that over the years, Trump purged seasoned technocrats and perceived Obama loyalists from top government posts, leaving key agency positions vacant or installing political appointees with scant experience.

The results of this became painfully clear when Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced last week that the federal government had no vaccine doses in reserve, shocking health officials across the country who thought there were millions in storage — which they were counting on to expand their vaccination efforts and inoculate millions of older and at-risk Americans.

This failure to inform states that the government had already shipped them their stockpile of second booster shots was incomprehensible — and incompetent.

But this is exactly when having someone with decades of government experience comes in handy. Biden knows how work the levers of a large, slow-moving bureaucracy to take on complex logistical challenges.

“You have my word that we will manage the hell out of this operation,” Biden said in remarks last week, while also pledging greater transparency. “But as I said last night, we need funding from Congress to make this happen.”

To that end, Biden has released a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan (with the promise of another massive tranche of spending this spring focused on infrastructure, jobs, health care, education and climate change).

Yet convincing Republicans to spend another $2 trillion after the $4 trillion the government spent last year to rescue the economy will require every arm-twisting skill Biden learned during his 36 years in the Senate.

Democrats have stressed that time is of the essence for Biden, so he needs to move quickly with or without Republican support. That means he’ll likely have to rely on a parliamentary procedure known as budget reconciliation, which only requires a simple majority in the Senate. (Vox has a great explainer on how reconciliation works here).

But with coronavirus deaths surging (along with jobless claims), Biden may be able to find bipartisan agreement on certain elements of his “American Rescue Plan,” some of which seem like no-brainers. (Others are pipe dreams, but more on that later).

Perhaps the biggest no-brainer, theoretically, is the $400 billion Biden is asking for to fight the pandemic.

This includes $20 billion to speed up vaccinations and make them free to everyone to hit Biden’s goal of delivering 100 million shots by the end of his first 100 days in office.

It also includes $50 billion for a “massive expansion” of nationwide testing (which has been woefully inadequate compared to many other countries) and $130 billion to help schools reopen — the latter being a priority for Republicans as well.

The plan also features an interesting proposal to create a public health corps of 100,000 people to staff vaccination sites, increase contact tracing, reach rural communities and help kids who fell behind in school during remote learning — a win-win-win in terms of protecting Americans from the disease, providing them with jobs and educating their children.

Notably, it includes money to help study the new, more contagious strain of the virus that experts say will be widespread in the United States by March.

Meanwhile, $1 trillion would go toward direct relief for Americans, including upping federal unemployment benefits from $300 a week to $400 a week and extending them from March through September.

Over 10 million Americans are unemployed, and 4 million have been out of work for half a year or longer. Nearly 1 million new unemployment claims alone were filed the week before Biden released his plan.

Extending the benefits to September shouldn’t be a major stumbling block. Most experts agree that the country won’t reach herd immunity until at least the summer or fall, meaning restaurants, hotels and myriad other businesses will stay shuttered for months to come.

Increasing unemployment benefits to $400 a week (as opposed to the current $300), however, will be a much tougher climb if last year’s negotiations are anything to go by.

Biden also wants a major expansion of tax credits for children and lower-income workers and 14 weeks of paid sick and family leave.

In addition, his package would give cash-strapped state and local governments $350 billion in aid. This has been a persistent Democratic demand — one that Republicans have just as persistently slapped down.

Biden’s $350 billion ask is a huge leap from the $160 billion that Democrats failed to secure in the last stimulus bill in December, so he’s likely to run into an even bigger GOP wall this time around. But it’s important to point out that Biden isn’t about to go into talks with his final offer. He must know the figure will be haggled down significantly, although what his bottom line is — and whether Republicans would even go along with it — remains to be seen.

Another massive spending component is $1,400 in direct stimulus checks, which would complement the $600 lawmakers approved in December, for a combined total of $2,000. Interestingly, it was President Trump who championed the $2,000 checks, a last-minute demand that almost blew up the carefully crafted bipartisan agreement last December.

Trump’s sudden foray into the talks was all the more bizarre because Democrats at the time (with exceptions like Bernie Sanders) initially only asked for $1,200, eventually settling for the $600 compromise.

Now, thanks in large part to Trump’s high-profile backing, the $2,000 figure has become nonnegotiable for most Democrats, putting Biden in a bind. Republican critics have a point that the $2,000 would benefit many Americans who don’t really need the money. Many will stash it away in savings or use it to pay off debts, instead of spending it to juice the economy. (Some Republicans, however, like Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley, are in favor of the checks.)

Lopping off the $1,400 stimulus checks would go a long way toward reducing the overall price tag of Biden’s plan, making it more palatable to fiscally hawkish Republicans.

But that may not be in the cards for Biden, who would probably face an internal revolt if he abandoned the checks.

Regardless, the prospects are slim that Biden can pass his stimulus plan on a bipartisanship basis, since he’d not only need every Democrat in the Senate to go along with it, but also at least 10 Republicans.

That’s a tall order, but fortunately for him, many of the measures in his American Rescue Plan can be passed through budget reconciliation, sidestepping GOP objections.

There are downfalls to this strategy, however. For one thing, it takes time pass legislation through reconciliation.

More importantly, Biden can’t afford to lose a single Democratic vote in the Senate, which is split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaker. That means Biden will have to court moderates like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who’s set to be a kingmaker in the next Congress (and is said to be lukewarm to the idea of $1,400 stimulus checks). Or he’ll need to peel off several moderate Republicans like Susan Collins, Mitt Romney or Lisa Murkowski.

But watering down the spending package to win over moderates is sure to anger progressives who have become a powerful bloc in the House, where Democrats hold a thin majority.

Managing the competing demands of House progressives and Senate moderates is going to be a tricky balancing act Biden will have to perform for at least the next two years.

To appease progressives, Biden included several of their top priorities in his stimulus plan.

One of the biggest, though — raising the national minimum wage to $15 an hour — can’t be passed through reconciliation and has zero chance of passing muster with Republicans. Many moderate Democrats oppose it as well, especially during an economic crisis when businesses are struggling just to stay open, let alone pay their employees more.

Biden knows this, but he also knows he can’t afford to alienate progressives who have become an influential movement in the party. The real question is whether he can placate their frustration over the minimum wage hike being dropped to quickly shift gears to other, more feasible, priorities.

This gets to another minefield: the blitz of executive orders Biden plans to issue upon taking office.

Some, again, are relative no-brainers. That includes rescinding Trump’s Muslim travel ban, which left many security experts scratching their heads and was perennially bogged down in legal battles anyway. Biden would also rejoin the World Health Organization (apropos given that we’re in the middle of a world health crisis) and the Paris climate accord, which doesn’t cost the U.S. anything because all commitments under the agreement are voluntary.

Trump supporters are likely to howl at the reversals, but most Republicans recognize that Trump’s executive orders were more show than substance, and they’ll probably want to save their energy for bigger battles.

On that front, Biden’s calls to pass major climate change legislation, add a “Medicare-like public option” to compete with private insurers and provide a massive injection of spending to fix America’s ailing infrastructure — funded in large part by raising taxes on corporations and the rich — will be met with fierce Republican resistance.

Even moderate Democrats may balk at the $3 trillion price tag for Biden’s “Build Back Better” infrastructure-and-tax plan that he intends to propose after his $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus plan.

But the more immediate potential landmine for Biden might be immigration. AP is reporting that the president will soon introduce a sweeping immigration proposal that offers an eight-year citizenship pathway to an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

It’s already being decried as a blanket amnesty and nonstarter by prominent Republicans such as Marco Rubio.

While Democrats are determined to roll back Trump’s harsh immigration policies, it may be wiser for them to focus on narrower, less controversial policies, like granting temporary legal status for so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the country illegally as children.

The chances of passing legislation that would give millions of undocumented immigrants citizenship — without any accompanying pledge to secure the border — are nil. The plan is also likely to galvanize Trump’s base, sparking an uproar that could drown out Biden’s other legislative priorities.

Yet despite its bleak prospects, Democrats say immigration reform is not impossible, citing the 2013 immigration overhaul crafted by the “gang of eight,” a bipartisan group of senators that included Republicans Marco Rubio and Lindsay Graham.

But those days are long gone. Today, Rubio has presidential aspirations and Graham has become one of Trump’s loudest cheerleaders.

Republicans in Congress have little time or need for the big, bipartisan deals of the past. In fact, they’ve spent much of their time over the last four years managing the fallout from the daily Trump show — a saga that will continue in the weeks or months ahead with the former president’s impeachment.

Republicans did pass tax cuts (through reconciliation) and installed a slew of conservative judges to federal courts — both hugely consequential moves. But they didn’t do anything on infrastructure or lowering prescription drug prices, ostensibly two Trump priorities that could’ve gotten Democratic buy-in early in his presidency.

And the party that was so intent on destroying Obamacare never offered any kind of alternative to it, as they’d been vowing to do for years (and as Trump repeatedly insisted was just around the corner).

Granted, a party that fundamentally opposes government overreach isn’t about to produce massive government initiatives.

But even before Trump exploded onto the scene, many Republicans during Barack Obama’s presidency discovered it was much easier (and often more politically rewarding) to tear down, or at least stand back, rather than build up — Obamacare being the prime example.

While the Affordable Care Act is often criticized because it passed through reconciliation, without a single Republican backing it, that only happened after the Obama administration spent months courting, cajoling and compromising to get Republicans on board with what was, essentially, a Republican-based approach to health care.

After extensive back-and-forth between the White House and several key Republicans, Mitch McConnell came in and essentially cratered the talks.

The GOP again refused to work with the White House when the 2008 global recession hit — and not a single Republican voted for Obama’s $800 stimulus package to rescue the U.S. economy.

That package was later shown to have saved jobs, especially in the auto industry, and the entire sum was ultimately paid back (with interest).

So Biden knows what it’s like to be burned by the opposition.

That was then, though.

Today, the country is in the midst of the dark winter that Biden predicted, with the pandemic having killed 400,000 Americans — a figure that’s rising exponentially.

Many economists say that spending big now will avert an even costlier catastrophe down the road, especially with interest rates at historic lows, making borrowing cheaper.

And as Jeff Stein and Erica Werner pointed out in a Jan. 15 Washington Post article: “Democrats are likely to accuse Republicans of hypocrisy if they resist higher spending in response to the pandemic. The national debt increased by almost $7.8 trillion during President Trump’s tenure, rising to levels unseen since World War II, partly because of the GOP’s $1.5 trillion unpaid-for tax cut bill.”

To be sure, Republicans are going to do everything they can to thwart liberal initiatives on issues like immigration, climate change, gun control, inequality, education and pretty much anything related to Obamacare.

But on coronavirus, there’s some hope for optimism that lawmakers will recognize the urgency of the situation.

Biden, for one, is counting on it.

“I’m convinced we are ready to get this done,” he said after releasing details of his stimulus plan. “The very health of our nation is at stake.”