Spending and Dreaming Big: The Biden Legacy May Be Losing Its Liberal Luster in 2021

President Biden’s ambitious spending and taxation bills are in jeopardy. Despite pressure and wheedling by both the Biden Administration and strong-arm tactics of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the more progressive Democratic members of the House have resisted approval of the President’s social program proposals, valued at $1.75 trillion. To complicate matters, Democratic lawmakers tied the fate of the social package to the less controversial infrastructure plan, putting both programs in peril. 

As Politico reports, “House liberals said they want to review the legislative text of $1.75 trillion social spending legislation the White House outlined Thursday and get a commitment of support from centrist Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — something the two have not outright given.”  Moreover, the social spending packaged, dubbed the Build Back Better Act (BBBA), has already been down considerably for its earlier incarnations. The act was originally priced at $3.5 trillion, but moderate Democrats, especially Senators Manchin and Sinema, expressed doubts and misgivings about the about the pricetag, the scope of the program, and the proposed taxes to pay for it. 

Although the act includes money for priorities like funding for climate change, child care and universal preschool, it has been stripped of other initiatives, such as paid family leave and subsidized community college. Specifically, it would “provide for universal free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds, extend the child tax credit that was created in a previous coronavirus rescue package, and reduce health insurance premiums by an average of $600 per year for more than 9 million Americans who buy insurance through the Obamacare marketplace, according to NBC News

Moreover, there are some positives for Democrats with regard to assistance for lower-income families. According to Intelligencer, “For the first time since Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, America’s poorest families will be guaranteed cash assistance, no strings attached. That is very good news. The refundable CTC has already proven effective at dramatically reducing child poverty. And a large body of sociological research shows that providing cash assistance to low-income families improves their kids’ later life outcomes.”

Additionally, the Intelligencer reports that “companies with over $1 billion in profits will need to pay a minimum 15 percent tax on the profits they report to their shareholders” and  “Firms would also face a 1 percent surcharge any time they bought back their own shares.” The more liberal caucus of the Democratic party is fully aware of the stakes of this spending in terms of shaping the future of the United States. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has argued the BBBA is  “probably the most consequential bill since the 1960s in terms of protecting the needs of working families, of children, the elderly, the sick and the poor.”

More importantly, the fate of these spending bills will likely not only shape the legacy of the Biden Administration but also greatly influence his electability in 2024. This notion is hardly lost upon the President, who himself said, “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week.”

And this message not lost upon the media. CNN writes that while the “prevailing political environment might make a case for incremental, moderate changes,” , , , “one lesson of recent years in Washington is that power can be fleeting with a split and ornery electorate stuck perpetually in a throw-the-bums-out mood.” 

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks about his Build Back Better agenda and the bipartisan infrastructure deal as Vice President Kamala Harris stands by in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., October 28, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


Ironically, in a climate when bipartisanship and compromise are sorely needed in D.C., these dynamics, which give President Biden an aura of moderation, may be his undoing. Part of what got Biden elected, besides a growing distaste for President Trump, who was mired in controversy towards the end of his term, was his appeal to dreaming big, evoking the energy and enthusiasm generated by President Obama’s campaign for the 2008 election, energy that sustained him enough to be re-elected in 2016. 

But Biden’s history in the Senate has been primarily as a moderate, a savvy politician who understands how to press the flesh and win the war of words using diplomacy and negotiation. That is the tone he took recently when he said, “No one got everything they wanted, including me, but that’s what compromise is, that’s consensus, and that’s what I ran on. I’ve long said compromise and consensus are the only way to get big things done in a democracy, important things done for the country.” 

However, when you dream big, especially as a series of campaign promises, you have to deliver, or you are seen as a failure by your constituency. Doug Elmendorf, the dean of the Harvard Kennedy School and the former director of the Congressional Budget Office, frames it this way: “In order to make real progress, you have to inspire people about the importance of the work, and then any compromise is a disappointment.”

Beyond holdouts in his own party, the President also faces steep opposition from Republicans, who characterized the spending as reckless and dangerous to a fragile economy. Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), the Republican Study Committee Chairman, contends the spending “Perpetuates a labor shortage” by continuing “welfare benefits without work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents at a time where there are 10.1 million job openings — more openings than there are people looking for work.”

There is also significant pushback against the spending on renewable energy sources and the concomitant taxes and regulations of carbon-based commerce, leading Senator John Boozman (R-AR) to say, “President Biden’s radical anti-American energy agenda is hurting our economy, and people in every state of the union are paying the price and feeling the pain today. They’re feeling it with higher energy bills. Any time they pay an energy bill, they are paying more. So what do the Democrats want to do about this? They want to make it worse.”

Still, there may be hope for Biden and the Democrats’ big dreams, diminished though they are. With the whittled-down price tag, Biden may be able to persuade Manchin and Sinema to join the cause, along with other skeptical Democrats, who want a more ambitious and comprehensive spending bill, one that would transform the American economy and landscape for decades. If so, they will have to answer the question that Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), a liberal who has long pushed for prescription drug legislation, has asked: “The question all of us are going to have to answer is, do we vote against a bill that contains provisions we all support because it doesn’t contain all the provisions we want?”

This choice, between dreaming big with the risk of accomplishing nothing, or settling for less while still achieving something of significance, will probably color Biden for the remainder of his term, and potentially define his viability for a second one. 

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