In his first 100 days, Franklin Roosevelt jammed a transformative agenda through Congress—combating mass immiseration while setting a benchmark for future presidencies. Until now.
Faced with a deadly pandemic and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Joe Biden is driving to outpace FDR while navigating his fractious party and an entrenched opposition whose base believes he stole the presidency. While this moment does not enable Biden to re-engineer our government as FDR did, it certainly calls for, as FDR famously said, “action, and action now.” Through an initial torrent of executive orders, President Biden has built momentum for subduing COVID-19 and passing a massive relief package—not in 100 days, but 60.
The orders are calculated to propitiate progressives while satisfying the broader electorate: halting the Keystone pipeline and new oil and gas exploration on public lands; forbidding federal workplace discrimination against LGBTQ Americans; ending the ban on transgender personnel in the military; extending pandemic-driven relief from student loans, evictions, and foreclosures; restoring protections for Dreamers; mandating masks on airplanes and federal property.
Reminding the world who is president, Biden rejoined the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization, reversed Trump’s Muslim travel ban, and moved to reunite migrant children with their families—addressing a moral stain comparable in cruelty, if not scale, to the Japanese internment camps of World War II. A good two weeks’ work.
But Biden’s defining imperative is infinitely harder: fulfilling his pledge to “shut down the virus” and revive the economy. This month the U.S. death toll will reach 500,000; a new GAO report captures the Trump administration’s staggering incompetence in fighting the pandemic—including the absence of a vaccine-distribution plan.
On Day One Biden promised to vaccinate 100 million Americans in 100 days; on Day Six he tentatively increased that goal by 50 million. His plan to accelerate vaccinations expands eligibility, provides more vaccination centers, deploys available vaccines faster, and stimulates swifter production.
In parallel, Biden must close the gap in comprehension and compliance caused by misinformation from Trump and sycophantic governors—encouraging vaccination and promoting public health measures, while counseling against premature optimism. So far it’s working: His overall approval ratings are positive, and a new Quinnipiac poll gives him a 61-29 percent edge on dealing with the virus.
This rapid start gives Biden momentum for pushing pandemic relief. Here, too, he has the advantage: Polling shows that combating COVID-19 and strengthening the economy are Americans’ top priorities, and a recent Politico/Morning Consult survey gives congressional Democrats a 28 percent margin over Republicans. He needs it—unlike FDR, Biden has a razor’s-edge majority in Congress.
Nonetheless, Biden’s relief proposal is bold, comprehensive, and, in his telling, no larger than our emergency requires. His $1.9 trillion proposal includes $1,400 relief checks to individuals; enhanced unemployment benefits; funding for COVID testing, and vaccine development and distribution; aid to struggling schools, states, and localities; a $15 per hour minimum wage; expenditures for child care; and an increase in the child tax credit aimed at drastically reducing child poverty.
Republicans call the package a non-starter, and the legislative terrain is daunting. Biden’s choices are to negotiate a drastically reduced measure which could garner the ten Republican senators needed to surmount a prospective filibuster, or to move his proposal through budget reconciliation—which would still require the unanimous support of all fifty Democratic senators and a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Harris.
Urging Biden to forgo reconciliation and make good on his promise to seek bipartisan comity, ten GOP senators countered with a $618 billion proposal—slicing Biden’s by two-thirds. The underlying differences are stark. The GOP reduces stimulus checks to $1,000 and confines them to recipients with modest means; cuts child-care funding in half; slashes all but $20 billion of the $130 billion Biden allocates for reopening schools; and entirely erases aid to states and cities, paid sick leave, the increased minimum wage, and the expanded child tax credit.
On Monday, Biden held an amiable meeting with the Republican proponents; it reportedly went twice as long as planned. But the prospects for compromise are dim.
Biden can’t drastically reduce his package and retain Democratic support, even as it’s entirely unclear how much give—if any—there is in the GOP’s $618 billion bottom line. Biden lacks the political leverage to seriously push Republicans in safe seats; nor can he split the package to satisfy them without jeopardizing his central goals. While pressing ahead with reconciliation will no doubt alienate Republicans, an attenuated negotiating process could provoke a Democratic mutiny.
Already Biden faces challenges with both wings of his party. Progressives are anxious to proceed: They rightly distrust Mitch McConnell, and scorn Republican complaints about invoking reconciliation—the exact mechanism the GOP’s situational deficit hawks used in 2017 to jam through Trump’s budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy. But progressives overrate their political sway within the party, and overlook the popularity of Democratic moderates in their home states. And a leading progressive priority—a $15 an hour minimum wage— is particularly contentious.
In turn, by refusing to vote against the filibuster, Senate moderates like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema fortified the GOP hammerlock which forces Biden to consider reconciliation. Further, Manchin advocates bipartisanship, and has misgivings about the size of Biden’s proposal; when Harris showed up in West Virginia to sell it, Manchin bristled.
Here’s reality: Manchin keeps winning in a state Biden lost by 40 percent. Republicans notwithstanding, Biden must satisfy his party’s moderates. But should Republicans prove recalcitrant, Manchin has signaled his support for reconciliation.
There’s a compelling case for going big—soon. The stakes include the success of Biden’s presidency; a new survey from Vox and Data for Progress shows that 64 percent of Americans favor swift and substantial pandemic relief, even if that means proceeding through reconciliation. Economically the greatest risk is doing too little, as Democrats learned in 2009 when they acquiesced in Republican demands to drastically reduce the stimulus package proposed by Barack Obama to combat the Great Recession—a decision which many economists believe enfeebled the recovery that followed.
The $2 trillion relief Congress passed in March 2020 proved successful and highly popular. But COVID will burden the economy for months to come, and the need for more is clear. To intervene aggressively is in the Democrats’ DNA; as David Leonhardt points out, historically the economy has fared much better under Democratic presidents—often because they are more proactive in spending to combat economic troughs.
While leaving open the possibility of passing a compromise bill with sixty votes, Biden has moved adeptly toward reconciliation. He has urged Senate Democrats to support his proposal without substantial changes, invoking the lesson of 2009 and gaining the trust of progressives—and the understanding of moderates that, as Senator Jon Tester said, the stimulus package needs to be “big enough to get the job done.” On Wednesday, Senate Democrats unanimously laid the procedural predicate for reconciliation.
As needed, Biden is compromising with Manchin and others, indicating his willingness to limit the $1,400 checks to those beneath a certain income threshold—who also are most likely to stimulate the economy by spending the money. This raises an interesting question: In the end, does every Republican want to oppose $1,400 checks to needy Americans? The final legislation may, indeed, attract a few Republican votes. Whatever the case, Biden means to pass it by the middle of March.
By acting swiftly and decisively, Biden can help restore Americans’ battered faith in government—seizing the high ground for the midterms in 2022. And should Democrats win the presidency by a greater margin in 2024, they may change the paradigm which has defined our governance since 1980—much as FDR did in 1933. Based on Biden’s deft beginning, this familiar figure may yet become a successful, perhaps transformational, president.