Joe Biden in Wilmington, Del., yesterday. Amr Alfiky/The New York Times
Joe Biden unveils his plan to defeat the virus and fix the economy.
Never let a good crisis go to waste. A version of that line has been variously attributed to Winston Churchill, Rahm Emanuel and others, and the idea is simple enough: A short-term crisis often creates the opportunity to solve long-term problems.
The Great Recession of a dozen years ago handed Democrats control of the federal government, which they used to expand health insurance to millions of Americans, after having failed at that goal for decades. The problem for Democrats was that voters didn’t reward the ambition. Less than a year after President Barack Obama signed the bill, Republicans retook House control, constraining the rest of Obama’s agenda.
Now, President-elect Joe Biden is preparing to take office during a new time of crisis. And like his former boss, Biden has big ambitions for fixing the country’s problems. But he is pursuing a different strategy than Obama did.
Biden’s speech last night, laying out a $1.9 trillion economic plan, made that clear. His agenda will remain more tightly linked to the immediate crisis than Obama’s. Although Obama also began his presidency with a huge stimulus bill, he soon pivoted to health care and climate change, which had only tenuous connections to the housing meltdown that led to the recession. Biden shows no sign of pivoting to anything so removed from the coronavirus.
“During this pandemic, millions of Americans, through no fault of their own, have lost the dignity and respect that comes with a job and a paycheck. The very health of our nation is at stake.”
Biden said last night in Wilmington, Del.
The Biden approach has clear advantages. It allows him to tell a consistent story about trying to defeat the virus, restart the economy and open schools. It may also increase his chances of achieving those goals. Obama did not remain so focused on the economy, and it was still struggling during the 2010 midterm campaign. Democrats suffered as a result.
(Biden’s team is already thinking about how to avoid a midterm defeat in 2022, Politico has reported.)
But Biden’s strategy also comes with risk. The country really does face big problems that are broader than the virus, including climate change, economic inequality and political dysfunction.
Biden and his team hope to address these by connecting them to the economy’s recovery. He is already planning a second piece of legislation that will include spending on clean-energy and infrastructure programs to put people back to work and tax increases on the wealthy to reduce the deficit. Biden’s larger agenda is called “Build Back Better” — a reference to the pandemic.
The model is Franklin D. Roosevelt. Biden won’t come close to the scale of New Deal change, given his slim congressional majorities, but the general idea is still the same.
Roosevelt resuscitated the economy while remaking the U.S. economy, through Social Security, minimum wages, Wall Street regulation, stronger labor unions and the construction of roads, bridges and buildings.
“A crisis does present an opportunity for long-term reforms, but it’s best to use that opportunity for reforms that address the immediate crisis.”
As Noah Smith of Bloomberg Opinion wrote this week.
Of course, it’s also possible that Biden will succeed at fighting the pandemic but fail to pass anything as lasting as Obama’s health care bill, let alone the New Deal.
For more: The Biden plan includes checks for most households; expanded jobless benefits and rental assistance; money to accelerate vaccinations and reopen schools; and a paid sick-leave program to encourage people to stay home when they’re ill. The Times’s Jeanna Smialek has more details.
“I’m just struck by the scale of these proposals. I’m excited to see a new administration thinking big.”
Matthew Yglesias, who writes a Substack newsletter, wrote last night.