“Help is here, and we will not stop working for you,” Biden said last month as he launched a tour to bring attention to the streams of federal aid in his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Covid-19 relief and economic stimulus law. In addition to bolstering the federal-state vaccination effort that has put 200 million shots in American arms, the law pumped out assistance in the form of stimulus checks, expanded unemployment insurance, a labor-pensions bailout, funds for schools and a boost for the child tax credit.
“He knows the infrastructure is there,” a Biden adviser said. “Unlike Trump — hell, unlike Obama — Biden and his people have lived and breathed government for half a century.”
His big proposals so far have been light on innovation and heavy on investment in the ability of federal agencies to deliver relief and, optimally, a springboard to lower- and middle-class Americans.
The pattern is also evident in his $2 trillion-plus American Jobs Plan, his $1.5 trillion discretionary spending proposal for the next fiscal year and the outlines of his trillion-dollar American Families Plan. He plans to pay for transportation, infrastructure, elder care and child care, and other items with higher taxes on corporations and on families that earn more than $400,000 a year. But the core of his agenda is on the spending side.
“President Biden has not expanded the agencies and the breadth of government,” said Mack McLarty, who was President Bill Clinton’s first chief of staff, taking stock of the trillions the new president wants to spend. “We’ve now got a different letter of the alphabet in front of the federal expenditures: It’s a ‘T,’ not a ‘B.’ These are just unprecedented times that call for these actions, and I don’t think anyone can say we don’t need to do some big things here to help the American people.”
Many of Biden’s initiatives center on expanding eligibility for, access to and public awareness of federal aid. That ties into his vow to concentrate on equity in his policymaking, a directive that is infused into the administration’s proposals and talking points.
“That’s exactly the kind of emphasis that needed to be made,” said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who delivered a crucial endorsement to Biden just before South Carolina’s Democratic primary and who has talked with Biden about guiding assistance to chronically impoverished parts of the country. “This is not any kind of special program. This is just directing resources where they can do the most good for the most people.”
A partisan push
The administration’s early approach has met Biden’s benchmarks for the national vaccination effort, getting the relief law out the door and escaping major missteps. But it hasn’t matched what confidants say is a deep belief that policy should be made in a bipartisan fashion.
White House officials say Biden has been disappointed that Republicans haven’t supported his rescue plan, gun-safety proposals and other measures that have broad public support in polls.
“It’s not that he’s surprised,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “It’s still frustrating, though.”
As a former lawmaker who served in the majority and the minority under presidents of both parties, Biden is attuned to the need to “leave space for the other party” to work through its internal politics in dealing with him, Psaki said.
Biden’s aides and his allies on Capitol Hill say he wants to work across the aisle as his presidency evolves, even if that won’t be made any easier by his decision to move forward on the emergency aid package without any Republican votes.
GOP lawmakers should not “leave their fingerprints on the murder weapon,” said Grover Norquist, an influential advocate of smaller government who runs the group Americans for Tax Reform.
Norquist said that voters will punish Biden and his fellow Democrats at the polls next year if they raise taxes and expand government — so long as the GOP doesn’t give him any meaningful support.
Republican leaders have said their rank-and-file will stand unified against Biden’s latest proposals, but some of the lawmakers sound more optimistic about the prospects of bipartisan Senate working groups coming together on compromises.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she sees authenticity in Biden’s outreach: “I always assume that it’s sincere,” she said. “We’ll have to see what happens.”
Some Republican lawmakers and aides have complained that Biden blew them off during the Covid-19 relief package, and they hope he won’t do that again on his infrastructure package.
“He is doing a partisan 100 days — meaning he understands that the Republicans won’t compromise and he isn’t waiting for them,” Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian and Princeton University professor, said in early April. “His focus is on keeping his caucus together and working through that.”
The historical mark
On Reagan’s 99th day in office, less than a month after would-be assassin John Hinckley shot him outside the Washington Hilton hotel, he pitched a sweeping economic plan to slash taxes and federal programs to a joint session of Congress.
Before he laid out his proposal, Reagan was interrupted repeatedly by thunderous applause as he read out the names of people who had been wounded during Hinckley’s attempt on his life. So by the time he turned to his policy vision, Reagan held the sentiment of the public and of many lawmakers in his hand.
The rally-around-the-flag effect of the wounded but beaming president rising to the lectern at the front of the House chamber helped weaken Democratic opposition to his agenda, paving the way for bipartisan enactment of an economic proposal that was anathema to House Democrats when it was introduced.
The speech to Congress was a capstone to Reagan’s first 100 days in office, and it was part of a broader public relations campaign that tied his popularity to a radical reimagining of the federal government as a smaller factor in American life. Democrats, who held the majority in the House, had the power to stop him — but they were cowed into cooperating by their fear that voters would punish them for standing in his way.
Biden, who will speak to Congress on the 99th day of his presidency and the 40th anniversary of Reagan’s address, voted for Reagan’s tax cuts that summer.
“It’s all fairly artificial, but as humans we need these milestones and markers,” Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said of the 100-days window. “It’s meaningful at the time. It could be meaningful in the long term. But it could also be overtaken by the swath of history.”
Perry and other historians said Biden’s parallel with Roosevelt is that they both came into office facing genuine threats to the general welfare of the nation and promising to confront them swiftly. Like most Democratic presidents, Biden has looked to Roosevelt for inspiration, but he has also echoed Reagan’s public communications effort with his American Relief Plan tour and the rollout of his American Jobs Plan.
White House officials say Biden frequently reminds them that he believes Obama failed to effectively market Obamacare and its benefits to the public. He plans a different approach.
The Obama-Biden lessons
Inside the White House, Biden and his team have assiduously courted, and basked in, comparisons to Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. But the animating ghost driving Biden is the administration he previously served in, Obama’s.
Biden may never get over Obama’s having repeatedly discouraged him from seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and 2020. He is determined now to demonstrate that he can be a more effective president than Obama.
“He gets to run an Obama-Biden 2.0 setup,” said a Biden ally who has worked for both men. “He knows what they did wrong and what they did right. He has brought in a lot of those experts to run the plan differently, one level up than they did the last time.”
It is a rivalry between friends but a rivalry all the same, and Biden’s team has wasted few chances to capitalize on Democratic dissatisfaction with Obama’s results. Many progressives say Obama blew an opportunity to harness public anger over the Great Recession and use it to justify a more ambitious agenda along the lines of Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Obama, this theory holds, naively waited for Republican support in Congress for his major initiatives and sacrificed Democratic priorities in a vain attempt to get it.
Biden, who, like Obama, promised to work across the aisle and unify the country, wrestled with the conflict between the need to pump money into the economy and his desire for bipartisanship, said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., one of his closest confidants on Capitol Hill.