Actually, Biden’s doing pretty well

August 2, 2022 6:43 am

ARPA was a big deal - orders of magnitude more effective than the Obama administration's painfully modest recovery bill, and exponentially more directly beneficial to working families than Trump's tax cuts for rich people. (White House photo)

Two years. A president might serve for four years, or maybe eight. But often as not anymore it seems if any big domestic policy bills get passed, they’ll be passed in the first two. Obama got the Affordable Care Act and a recovery plan. Trump got tax cuts for rich people.

In his first two years, Biden got the American Rescue Plan Act. Slight dips in Gross Domestic Product over the last couple quarters notwithstanding, GDP is still 14.5% higher than it was at its pre-pandemic peak.

ARPA is a big reason why.

Republicans sure seem to think so. There are a lot of reasons for high gas prices, and a lot of reasons for global – not just U.S. – inflation (not least being high gas prices). But Republicans lately have focused primarily on one, their contention that federal spending, and Biden’s ARPA legislation in particular, have overheated the economy, hence the inflation.

Wait, what’s that, Republicans? The economy’s too hot?

Maybe during the bleakness that was 2020 there were people who thought federal legislation would eventually help boost the economy to a robust recovery by 2022. I on the other hand expected typical Democratic nibbling around the edges, and an accompanying long, hard, miserable slog of a recovery, similar to that following the 2007-8 crash.

I’m glad I was wrong.

ARPA was a big deal – orders of magnitude more effective than the Obama administration’s painfully modest recovery bill, and exponentially more directly beneficial to working families than Trump’s tax cuts for rich people.

Also in his first two years, Biden got the ever-elusive bipartisan infrastructure bill. It was low-hanging fruit – nearly everyone in both parties had been clamoring for massively increased federal spending on infrastructure for years. And yet the only remotely related achievement Trump scored on the issue was to turn the phrase “infrastructure week” into a punchline.

And last week, Senate Democrats reached a tentative agreement on a new budget “reconciliation” bill, i.e., a bill that they can pass with only 50 votes plus Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a tie.

While only a mere shadow of the ill-fated Build Back Better bill, the new reconciliation package is still a huge piece of domestic legislation. The climate provisions are getting most of the headlines. But the bill would also establish a precedent for allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices (a wildly popular idea). It would continue ARPA’s expansion of Affordable Care Act subsidies (that had always been too low), assuring millions of people don’t see big hikes in the cost of premiums. The bill also pays for itself, mostly by establishing a 15% corporate minimum tax (which I suspect is far more popular among even many Republican voters than Republican politicians would care to admit).

Everyone everywhere can be forgiven for assuming West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin will pull a Manchin, move the goalposts, and then withdraw his support citing whatever issue his staff has identified as trending on West Virginia talk radio. And he’s not the only problem. Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema harbors an unseemly fondness for making working people pay higher tax rates than corporations. And uh-oh spaghettio the new reconciliation bill contains the aforementioned minimum corporate tax.

But if Manchinema can be reasonable (for a change), and the bill makes it to Biden’s desk, that would make three major pieces of domestic legislation during his first two years.

Not too bad.

The reason a president’s first two years are often the most productive on the domestic legislation front is of course because one party controlling both the White House and both houses of Congress rarely lasts for very long. Most people who study such things expect Democrats to lose at least the House, if not the Senate too, in this year’s midterm elections. 

Whether Biden gets all three big bills in his first two years, or has to settle for just the two, they could be the largest and most consequential pieces of domestic legislation of his presidency, even if he wins another term.

But they will be large, and consequential, and beneficial to people and the economy in the U.S. for years and even decades to come.

And if by chance the Democrats not only hold on to Congress this year but pick up a couple extra Democratic senators to offset the pernicious stylings of Manchin and Sinema, the Biden administration and Democrats will have a chance to axe the filibuster and reach for more accomplishments, starting with codifying abortion rights, and safeguarding democracy by enacting voting rights legislation.

Oh, and about that Supreme Court…

Portions of this column originally appeared in recent issues of the Daily Current newsletter, which is free, and which you can subscribe to here.

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