Can Biden Finally Get Us Past Reagan?

God, I hope so. According to one view of American history, Joe Biden could be extremely important. He could be our first truly “post-Reagan” president. From Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times:

During Donald Trump’s presidency, I sometimes took comfort in the Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek’s concept of “political time.”

In Skowronek’s formulation, presidential history moves in 40- to 60-year cycles, or “regimes.” Each is inaugurated by transformative, “reconstructive” leaders who define the boundaries of political possibility for their successors.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was such a figure. For decades following his presidency, Republicans and Democrats alike accepted many of the basic assumptions of the New Deal. Ronald Reagan was another. After him, even Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama feared deficit spending, inflation and anything that smacked of “big government.”

I found Skowronek’s schema reassuring because of where Txxxx seemed to fit into it. Skowronek thought Txxxx was a “late regime affiliate” — a category that includes Jimmy Carter and Herbert Hoover. Such figures, he’s written, are outsiders from the party of a dominant but decrepit regime.

They use the “internal disarray and festering weakness of the establishment” to “seize the initiative.” Promising to save a faltering political order, they end up imploding and bringing the old regime down with them. No such leader, he wrote, has ever been re-elected.

During Txxxx’s reign, Skowronek’s ideas gained some popular currency, offering a way to make sense of a presidency that seemed anomalous and bizarre. “We are still in the middle of Txxxx’s rendition of the type,” he wrote in an updated edition of his book “Presidential Leadership in Political Time,” “but we have seen this movie before, and it has always ended the same way.”

Skowronek doesn’t present his theory as a skeleton key to history. It’s a way of understanding historical dynamics, not predicting the future. Still, if Txxxx represented the last gasps of Reaganism instead of the birth of something new, then after him, Skowronek suggests, a fresh regime could begin.

When Joe Biden became the Democratic nominee, it seemed that the coming of a new era had been delayed. Reconstructive leaders, in Skowronek’s formulation, repudiate the doctrines of an establishment that no longer has answers for the existential challenges the country faces. Biden, Skowronek told me, is “a guy who’s made his way up through establishment Democratic politics.” Nothing about him seemed trailblazing.

Yet as Biden’s administration begins, there are signs that a new politics is coalescing. When, in his inauguration speech, Biden touted “unity,” he framed it as a national rejection of the dark forces unleashed by his discredited predecessor, not stale Gang of Eight bipartisanship. He takes power at a time when what was once conventional wisdom about deficits, inflation and the proper size of government has fallen apart. That means Biden, who has been in national office since before Reagan’s presidency, has the potential to be our first truly post-Reagan president.

“Biden has a huge opportunity to finally get our nation past the Reagan narrative that has still lingered,” said Representative Ro Khanna, who was a national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. “And the opportunity is to show that government, by getting the shots in every person’s arm of the vaccines, and building infrastructure, and helping working families, is going to be a force for good.”

A number of the officials Biden has selected — like Rohit Chopra for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Gary Gensler for the Securities and Exchange Commission and Bharat Ramamurti for the National Economic Council — would have fit easily into an Elizabeth Warren administration. Biden has signed executive orders increasing food stamp benefits, took steps to institute a $15-an-hour minimum wage for federal employees and contractors, and announced plans to replace the federal fleet with electric vehicles. His administration is working on a child tax credit that would send monthly payments to most American parents.

Skowronek told me he’s grown more hopeful about Biden just in the last few weeks: “The old Reagan formulas have lost their purchase, there is new urgency in the moment, and the president has an insurgent left at his back.”

This is the second Democratic administration in a row to inherit a country wrecked by its predecessor. But Biden’s plans to take on the coronavirus pandemic and the attendant economic disaster have been a departure from Obama’s approach to the 2008 financial crisis. The difference isn’t just in the scale of the emergencies, but in the politics guiding the administrations’ responses.

In “A Promised Land,” the first volume of his presidential memoir, Obama described a meeting just before he took office, when the economic data looked increasingly bleak. After an aide proposed a trillion-dollar rescue package, Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, began “to sputter like a cartoon character spitting out a bad meal.” Emanuel, according to Obama, said the figure would be a nonstarter with many Democrats, never mind Republicans. In Obama’s telling, Biden, then vice president, nodded his head in agreement.

Now Emanuel, hated by progressives, has been frozen out of Biden’s administration, and the new president has come out of the gate with a $1.9 trillion proposal. In addition to $1,400 checks to most Americans and an increase in federal unemployment aid to $400 a week, it includes a national $15-an-hour minimum wage, something dismissed as utopian when Bernie Sanders ran on it in 2016.

What has changed is not just the politics but the economic consensus. Recently I spoke to Jared Bernstein, a member of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers . . .  When Biden was vice president, Bernstein was his chief economic adviser, and he said the meetings he’s in now are very different from those he was in during the last economic crisis.

Back then, Bernstein said, there was a widespread fear that too much government borrowing would crowd out private borrowing, raising interest rates. That thinking, he said, has changed. As Biden told reporters this month, “Every major economist thinks we should be investing in deficit spending in order to generate economic growth.”

It’s not just that the Democratic Party has moved left — the old Reaganite consensus in the Republican Party has collapsed. There’s nothing new about Republicans ignoring deficits — deficits almost never matter to Republicans when they’re in power. What is new is the forthright rejection of laissez-faire economics among populist nationalists like Senator Hawley of Missouri, who joined with Sanders to demand higher stimulus payments to individuals in the last round of Covid relief.

That doesn’t mean we should be optimistic about people like Hawley, who wouldn’t even admit that Biden won the election, helping the new administration pass important legislation. But Republicans are going to have an increasingly difficult time making a coherent case against economic mercy for the beleaguered populace.

“This idea that the inflation hawks will come back — I just think they’re living in an era that has disappeared,” Elizabeth Warren told me.

However popular it is, Biden’s agenda will be possible only if Democrats find a way to legislate in the face of Republican nihilism. They’ll have to either convince moderates to finally jettison the filibuster, or pass economic legislation through reconciliation, a process that requires only a majority vote. Where Congress is stalemated, Biden will have to make aggressive use of executive orders and other types of administrative action. But he has at least the potential to be the grandfather of a more socially democratic America.

A moderate president, says Skowronek, can also be a transformative one. “It’s a mistake to think that moderation is a weakness in the politics of reconstruction,” he said, noting that both Abraham Lincoln and Roosevelt were “viciously” attacked from the left. “Moderation can stand as an asset if it’s firmly grounded in a repudiation of the manifest failure and bankruptcy of the old order. In that sense, moderation is not a compromise or a middle ground. It’s the establishment of a new common sense.”

There is, of course, no guarantee that Biden will fully rise to the moment. Skowronek has always expected that eventually American politics will change so much that the patterns he identified will no longer apply. “All I can say is that so many of the elements, the constellation of elements that you would associate with a pivot point, are in place,” he said. In this national nadir, we can only hope that history repeats itself.

The Arrival of the Good News Stories

They’re already showing up. For example:

“President-elect Biden to end Keystone XL pipeline in fight on climate change” (Washington Post)

“Attorney Roberta Kaplan is about to make Txxxx’s life extremely difficult” (Washington Post) [she represents E. Jean Carroll, who’s suing him for defamation, and Mary Trump, who’s suing him for stealing her inheritance]

“Biden taps Warren ally Chopra to lead Consumer Bureau” (Politico)

“Txxxx’s Census Director To Quit After Trying To Rush Out ‘Indefensible’ Report” (NPR)

“Biden to sign executive orders rejoining Paris climate accord and rescinding travel ban on first day” (CNN)

“Biden’s ambitious 100-day plan to erase Txxxx’s legacy” (CNN)

Of course, these stories will remind us of what went before:

I wish I could tell you that the incoming Biden administration had a genius plan for combating Covid-19, thick with ideas no one else had thought of and strategies no one else had tried. But it doesn’t.

What it does have is the obvious plan for combating Covid-19, full of ideas many others have thought of and strategies it is appalling we haven’t yet tried. That it is possible for Joe Biden and his team to release a plan this straightforward is the most damning indictment of the Txxxx administration’s coronavirus response imaginable.

The Txxxx administration seemed to believe a vaccine would solve the coronavirus problem, freeing President Txxxx and his advisers of the pesky work of governance. But vaccines don’t save people; vaccinations do. And vaccinating more than 300 million people, at breakneck speed, is a challenge that only the federal government has the resources to meet. The Txxxx administration, in other words, had it backward. The development of the vaccines meant merely that the most logistically daunting phase of the crisis, in terms of the federal government’s role, could finally begin.

In the absence of a coordinated federal campaign, the job has fallen to overstretched, under-resourced state and local governments, with predictably wan results. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the roughly 31 million doses that have been sent out, about 12 million have been used.

The good news is that the incoming Biden administration sees the situation clearly. “This will be one of the most challenging operational efforts ever undertaken by our country,” Biden said on Friday. “You have my word that we will manage the hell out of this operation.”
The person in charge of managing the hell out of the operation is Jeff Zients . . . In a Saturday briefing with journalists, Zients broke the plan down into four buckets. Loosen the restrictions on who can get vaccinated (and when). Set up many more sites where vaccinations can take place. Mobilize more medical personnel to deliver the vaccinations. And use the might of the federal government to increase the vaccine supply by manufacturing whatever is needed, whenever it is needed, to accelerate the effort. “We’re going to throw the full resources and weight of the federal government behind this emergency,” Zients promised.

Most elements of the plan are surprising only because they are not already happening. Biden’s team members intend to use the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up thousands of vaccination sites in gyms, sports stadiums and community centers, and to deploy mobile vaccination options to reach those who can’t travel or who live in remote places. They want to mobilize the National Guard to staff the effort and ensure that strapped states don’t have to bear the cost. They want to expand who can deliver the vaccine and call up retired medical personnel to aid the campaign. They want to launch a massive public education blitz, aimed at communities skeptical of the vaccine. They’re evaluating how to eke out more doses from the existing supply — there is, for instance, a particular vial that will get you six doses out of a given quantity of Pfizer’s vaccine rather than five, and they are looking at whether the Defense Production Act could accelerate production of that particular vial and other, similarly useful goods.

The Start of a New Deal for America

Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times favorably compares Biden’s “American Rescue Plan” to the first days of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. One reason is that it would seriously reduce child poverty:

Coverage of Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan has understandably focused on the $1,400 payments to individuals, the increased unemployment benefits, the assistance to local governments, the support for accelerated vaccine rollout and the investments to get children back in schools. But there is so much more: food assistance, policies to keep families from becoming homeless, child care support, a $15 federal minimum wage and an expansion of the earned-income tax credit to fight poverty.

To me, the single most exciting element of the Biden proposal is one that has garnered little attention: a pathbreaking plan that would drastically cut child poverty.

It is a moral stain on America that almost one-third of people living in poverty are children, a higher share in poverty than any other age group.

So it’s exhilarating that Biden included in his plan a temporary expansion (I hope it will be made permanent) of the child tax credit in a way that would do more than any other single policy to reduce child poverty and make America more truly a land of opportunity. In effect, Biden is turning the child credit into something like the child allowances that are used around the world, from Canada to Australia, to reduce child poverty.

The Biden child poverty plan was previously offered as legislation backed by Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and a Columbia University analysis found that it would reduce child poverty in the United States by 45 percent. For Black children, it would reduce poverty by 52 percent, and for Native American children, 62 percent.

This is the boldest vision laid out by an American president for fighting poverty, and child poverty in particular, in at least half a century,” said Luke Shaefer, a poverty expert at the University of Michigan.

Americans too often accept poverty or race gaps as hopeless and inevitable. In fact, the evidence suggests they are neither. As Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair cut child poverty by half with a strategy that included Biden-style child allowances.

[Another] example is the New Deal . . . . Results of Roosevelt’s boldness included Social Security, rural electrification, jobs programs, networks of hiking trails, the G.I. Bill of Rights and a 35-year burst of inclusive growth that arguably made the United States the richest country in the history of the world.

Yet for the last half-century, we mostly retreated. We overinvested in prisons and tax breaks for billionaires while underinvesting in education, public health and those left behind.

So we think of the United States as No. 1, but America ranks No. 28 worldwide in well-being of citizens, according to the Social Progress Index. And the United States is one of only three countries to have gone backward since the index began in 2011.

Americans are less likely to graduate from high school, more likely to die young, less safe from violence and less able to drink clean water than citizens in many other advanced countries. And then along came Covid-19 and magnified the disparities.

As Biden noted in his speech Thursday night, one in seven households in America now report that they don’t have enough food. Some 12 million children live in households that lack enough food. . . . 

Yes, Biden’s proposal would be costly, but a major study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that child poverty is even more expensive, costing America at least $800 billion a year in diminished productivity, higher crime and elevated medical costs.

Helping people is often harder than it looks. But it is difficult to overstate how much difference Biden’s child poverty plan would make for Americans, for economic growth, for the country’s international competitiveness — and, let’s acknowledge it, for the moral framework of the United States. In the long run, this would do more to advance American equality, opportunity and decency than almost anything else.

Unquote.

There will be Republican opposition to Biden’s plan, of course, which will almost certainly mean that it’s effectiveness is reduced. But it’s encouraging that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, not exactly a hotbed of socialism, has endorsed it (to some extent):

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce welcomes the introduction of President-elect Biden’s American Rescue Plan. Specifically, we applaud the President-elect’s focus on vaccinations and on economic sectors and families that continue to suffer as the pandemic rages on. We must defeat COVID before we can restore our economy and that requires turbocharging our vaccination efforts.  We look forward to working with the new administration and Congress on the details and in ensuring that any additional economic assistance is timely, targeted, and temporary.

It Has To Be Different This Time

Joe Biden’s proposed Covid-19 relief plan is a big deal. From Vox:

The proposal, called the American Rescue Plan, is divvied up into three buckets:

$400 billion for dealing with the coronavirus, including vaccines and testing;

$1 trillion in direct relief to families; and

$400 billion in aid to communities and businesses.

It includes money for testing, vaccines, and public health workers; $400 a week in extended federal unemployment insurance through September; rental assistance; emergency paid leave; and funding for reopening schools, among other items. And, as Democrats promised when campaigning in Georgia, Biden’s plan would send out another $1,400 in stimulus checks, bringing the total this year to $2,000.

Greg Sargent of The Washington Post discusses the relatively encouraging politics of the matter:

The sheer scale of the economic rescue package that Joe Biden has unveiled has surprised a lot of observers who were expecting the president-elect to offer something more in line with his centrist, incrementalist past.

In unveiling the new [roughly] $1.9 trillion package, Biden declared that rather than worry about “our debt situation,” it’s time to spend big “with interest rates at historic lows.” As Slate’s Jordan Weissmann put it: “I would not have anticipated that Joe Biden would become a clear and forceful advocate of deficit spending.”

What accounts for this ambition? Most obviously, this crisis is truly extraordinary. The new leadership must execute a massive vaccine-distribution operation amid a broader effort to tame a raging pandemic, while securing assistance to struggling Americans plus a big burst of stimulus spending to address a deepening economic crisis.

Another obvious answer is that the politics have shifted. The Democratic Party has moved left on fundamental economic questions, due in large part to advocacy from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others.

But still another reason, one that has been less remarked-upon, is that many Democrats have lived through what happened when former president Barack Obama inherited another major economic crisis from another Republican president.

As has been endlessly hashed out, Obama opted for a stimulus that fell short of what was needed. Putting aside why that happened, what everyone now knows is that it was a serious mistake. Democrats lost the House in 2010 and spent the remainder of Obama’s presidency locked in brutal fiscal trench warfare with a GOP determined to starve the recovery with austerity to cripple his presidency under the guise of fake concerns about spending and deficits.

Many Democrats who lived through that, a lot of whom are still in Congress and some of whom are advising Biden — who himself lived through it as vice president — must be wary of a repeat.

Making them even more wary, one hopes, is the fact that Republican deficit concerns evaporated once a Republican became president. Indeed, the economy was good (at least until the coronavirus shattered it) precisely because it was fueled by stimulus.

As Neil Irwin reports, the Trump years have caused a change among economists, who are now more receptive to a hotter economy — with higher deficits and lower unemployment — and less wary of inflation than they traditionally have been. That has fueled a political shift toward tolerance of deficits, making Democrats less wary of bad-faith criticism for overspending.

But on top of that sea change, Democrats have to be feeling extra-burned by the fact that the GOP pivoted so abruptly from voicing phony deficit concerns under a Democratic president to not caring about them anymore under a Republican.

The lesson of those years is that Txxxx the political beneficiary of that chicanery. He consistently had high approval ratings on the economy, and he might have won reelection on the strength of that if the coronavirus hadn’t intervened.

Democrats appear to be learning from that lesson right now.

On still another front, the makeup of the Senate Democratic caucus is different. During the Obama years you had centrist old-liners chairing key committees . . . Expected to chair those respective committees in the new Senate now are Ron Wyden of Oregon, Sanders, and Sherrod Brown of Ohio. All are far more progressive than those previous Democratic chairs. . . .

Wyden, for his part, believes this combination of things — an awareness of getting played by phony GOP deficit concerns and more progressive Senate committee chairs — will make this time very different from 2009 and 2010.

“The key lessons we learned were the importance of not assuming there will be multiple bites at the apple and not taking your foot off the gas in the middle of economic recovery,” Wyden told me in a statement. “We cannot let a popular recovery agenda get derailed by fiscal fearmongering that we know is unjustified and phony.”

“Committee chairs are going to be aggressive, and want to get things done,” Wyden added. “Overall, I think the dynamics have changed a lot since 2009.”

To be sure, it still remains to be seen how big a package Biden will actually wrest from Congress. He has already announced he hopes to pursue bipartisan support in the Senate rather than try to get the legislation passed with a simple majority via the “reconciliation” process.

So it’s still possible that Biden could end up on a futile hunt for Republican support or end up compromising his stimulus package downward. But there is at least some reason for optimism that Democrats have learned from what happened last time. . . .

Trying To Fill the Void This Thanksgiving

Since we don’t have a real president at this point, Joe Biden is trying to fill the void. I don’t think a president-elect has ever addressed the nation like this, two months before Inauguration Day. His remarks were covered live by all the TV networks. They’re worth hearing.

President-elect Joe Biden Thanksgiving Address – YouTube