For the mother of all liberal spending sprees, how about Joe Biden’s US$1.9-trillion stimulus bill, which Congress passed on Wednesday?
The American Rescue Plan, as it is immodestly called, is more than twice the size of Barack Obama’s stimulus package, which the Democrats brought forward in 2009 following the global financial crisis.
As Mr. Biden pours on the syrup to make his honeymoon sweeter, Republican lawmakers are outraged. Every one of them voted against the bill in the House. They claim the Democrats are exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to turn the country into a welfare state.
But they have a complication: The Republican rank and file don’t seem to mind. A majority of Republicans, polling suggests, are on board with the Democrats’ latter-day war on poverty.
It doesn’t matter that the rescue package mushrooms an already massive national debt. Few seem to care about deficits any more. They’re old hat – and a sign progressives have the wind in their sails.
The rescue plan caps a flurry of reform initiatives from Mr. Biden in his first 50 days. It’s only a beginning but what a strong beginning it is. As seen by his approval ratings, the content is popular and so is his style, low-key and professional. Competence is replacing chaos, providing real hope that the country is turning the corner.
While the stimulus is designed as COVID-19 relief, it is much broader in scope as it seeks to seal a much-frayed American social safety net.
The plan promises to provide direct payments of up to US$1,400 to most Americans. It increases the annual income of the bottom fifth of households by 20 per cent. A prime focus is child support; a range of measures would potentially cut the shameful child-poverty rate almost in half.
Additionally, while a US$15 minimum wage did not make the cut, there is expanded health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, an extension of federal unemployment benefits, major funding for vaccine distribution and testing, US$31-billion in assistance for Indigenous communities in the U.S., extended federal unemployment benefits and US$5-billion in aid to farmers of colour who have been victims of systemic discrimination.
It’s been enough to leave House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy fuming. “Almost every one of this bill’s 592 pages includes a liberal pipe dream that predates the pandemic,” he bellyached.
The coronavirus, in combination with the economic pounding it brought on, made the surge in big-government activism possible. While some see a leftward realignment in U.S. politics taking shape, others say not so fast. A year from now, when the crises are over and gargantuan deficits are taking their toll and inflation is climbing, the mood could well change. Many of the measures in the rescue package are set to expire within a year and Democrats will likely have a hard time renewing them.
Mr. Biden had to strike at the right moment, and did so in much bolder fashion than with the relief package served up while he was Mr. Obama’s vice-president. “What happened in 2009 and ’10 is, we tried to work with the Republicans, the package ended up being much too small, and the recession lasted for five years,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recalled.
Preceding his rescue plan, Mr. Biden delivered a series of executive actions aimed at undoing much of Donald Trump’s retrograde work on climate change, on immigration, on racial and gender equality.
Not all has been smooth sailing. Mr. Biden’s decision not to penalize Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was condemned by both the left and right.
His decision, while compassionate, to revoke Mr. Trump’s policies removing protections for undocumented people brought into the country is creating a crisis at the Mexican border, where there is now an overflow of migrants.
Rather than reaching across the aisle as he promised in his inauguration speech, Mr. Biden has shown little taste for compromise.
But Republicans, who were hopeful he would come across as a senescent stumblebum, have hardly been able to lay a glove on him. Mr. Biden has stayed out of the limelight, not holding one full-blown press conference. He’s been confident and calming. And he’s been lucky.
As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell put it, “Democrats inherited a tide that was already turning.” Indeed, the pandemic recovery and the economic recovery were on the way.
But the moment required a seasoned, well-reasoned chief executive to take advantage. The 46th President is doing just that, making a resurgence – springtime in America – a likely prospect.
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