The Relief Package is a Big Deal

If former Vice President Joe Biden thought the signing of the Affordable Care Act was “a big fucking deal,” what expletive describes President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill?

The measure is, perhaps, besides Obamacare, the most momentous piece of legislation enacted in decades. Not only does the bill provide $1,400 in direct payments to most Americans to alleviate distress caused by the pandemic, but it also redirects the nation away from its recent past and renews the pledge of the New Deal in expanding the social safety net. The Democratic relief bill thoroughly rejects the governing principles enshrined since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who believed government was the problem and saw the solution to economic difficulties in policies that directly aided the rich. Biden and the Democratic Party, in channeling Franklin Delano Roosevelt, reflect the view that only an active government can cure the nation’s ills.

According to the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University, the relief package will cut child poverty in half and lift nearly 13-million Americans out of poverty. Unlike the stimulus package passed during President Barack Obama’s first year in office, which was too modest in a futile attempt to attract Republican votes in Congress, the Biden plan delivers a turbocharged boost to the economy. “History and a strong body of research would tell us the only way to avoid more lasting scars on households and the economy is by not doing too little,” said Ellen Zentner, chief economist at Morgan Stanley. 

The plan is bold. In addition to direct payments, the measure allows $300 per week for unemployment benefits through the summer, significantly raises the child tax credit, allocates funds for higher education, increases payments to low-income families to help with home heating and cooling costs, distributes funds to older Americans to support nutrition programs, provides housing assistance, and beefs up the vaccine distribution effort. The bill also fulfills Biden’s campaign pledge to make the Affordable Care Act more affordable for millions of Americans by expanding subsidies for health insurance for two years.

This is — make no mistake about it — a Democratic package. Not one Republican in either the House or the Senate voted for it, despite the bill’s public popularity. Polls show that upwards of 75 percent of all Americans back the relief bill, with nearly 60 percent of Republicans favoring it. That level of support is unprecedented and will put Republican candidates in a difficult spot in the 2022 mid-term congressional elections. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell anticipated that problem when he tried to preempt any future Democratic suggestions that the bill led to an improving economy. “The economy’s coming back, people are getting the vaccine, we’re on our way out of this. We’re about to have a boom,” the Kentuckian said. “And if we do have a boom, it will have absolutely nothing to do with this $1.9 trillion.”

Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi took a different tack by attempting to take credit for a bill he did not support. In a tweet, Wicker praised the “targeted relief” directed at “independent restaurant operators.” The Mississippian co-authored the amendment allotting the funds, but Wicker’s Twitter feed quickly was inundated with tweets like “Oh no, you don’t get to take credit for this. You voted no,” a sticky fact Wicker did not mention in his original tweet. Wicker’s misplaced effort to take credit only proved Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s exasperated point about Republican obstruction: “It’s typical that they vote no and take the dough.”

The relief plan marks a major evolution for the president. In his five-decade career in politics, Biden appealed largely to union workers and blue-collar tradesmen like those in Scranton, Pennsylvania where he grew up. The nearly two-trillion dollar spending package makes the crusader for the middle class also the champion for the poor. 

Biden spent most of his years in Congress concentrating on foreign policy and such domestic issues as criminal justice reform and gun control. Economic policy interested him little, but aides say the president enthusiastically has embraced his new role and is willing to use Democratic power to enact sweeping rather than incremental change. A naturally empathetic man, Biden has been moved by the unequal suffering inflicted on the poor by the pandemic. “Millions of Americans who, through no fault of their own, have lost the dignity and respect that comes with a job and a paycheck,” the president said in January. “And now, a lot of these folks are facing eviction, or waiting hours in their cars — literally hours in their cars, waiting to be able to feed their children as they drive up to a food bank.  It’s the United States of America and they’re waiting to feed their kids.”

 “We all grow,” said Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat. And, we all change, which is what has happened to the Democratic Party as it has moved to the left. The progressive tilt of the party was demonstrated in the vigorous presidential campaigns waged in 2016 and 2020 by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described democratic socialist. The electoral successes of Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, among others, also have turned the party into a vehicle for progressive ideas. 

Democrats have embraced a host of progressive ideas such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, tuition-free college, immigration reform, and democratization of the political system. The Republican Party’s laser-like focus on tax cuts and the politics of grievance leaves Democrats as the only political players seriously entertaining ideas aimed at addressing economic and social problems. And a lack of bipartisan cooperation from the opposition means Democrats have little incentive to work with Republicans on compromises, a fact of modern political life that pushes both parties to the extremes.

The president has moved with his party. He knows the problems afflicting Americans are vast and require bold initiatives. Solving those problems is good politics. Besides. “Uncle Joe’s” gut tells him that helping the poorest among us is the right thing to do. 

Sometimes good politics and good morals align. And, the result is a very big deal, indeed.

Posted March 12, 2021