That sharpening divergence reflects the inescapable legislative reality that Biden can pass most of his economic blueprint through the special reconciliation process, which requires only a majority Senate vote, while the bulk of his cultural and racial priorities remain vulnerable to GOP filibusters — unless Democrats can convince their last few recalcitrant senators to curtail or eliminate the practice.
The economic agenda that Biden is positioned to advance — from massively expanding the child tax credit to breaking ground on big new public works projects — embodies the highest priority of earlier generations of Democratic leaders, from Roosevelt to Johnson, on expanding opportunity for average families. Where Biden could fall short is on legislation advancing equity and inclusion on the grounds of race, gender and sexual orientation that has become the most powerful motivation for many younger Democratic activists.
Even though the House has quickly passed an array of Democratic social and cultural priorities (from police reform to voting rights), White House officials and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer have left no doubt that their principal focus for the coming months will be winning approval for the $2 trillion economic plan focused on physical infrastructure that the President recently issued and the follow-up plan that’s expected soon on human capital, including education, training and extending the child tax credit.
“You can certainly see that is where Biden and Schumer are focusing their legislative chits relative to the other issues,” says Sean McElwee, a pollster for liberal groups.
Democrats’ good news and bad news
“On paper, this is likely the biggest effort since the Great Society to couple nationwide investment with efforts to direct more economic activity towards the heartland, rural or left-behind regions and neighborhoods that have been really struggling in the last decade,” Mark Muro, policy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, told me.
“If you take all these changes [in the stimulus bill] together — in food programs, the child tax credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, subsidies for health care coverage, major expansion of rental assistance, child care, and the like — this would be historic in terms of strengthening so many of these programs so much … in the same year,” says Robert Greenstein, the founder of the liberal analysis and advocacy group the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who recently stepped down after nearly four decades as the organization’s president. “The combined effect on poverty, hardship and well-being for families with low or modest incomes would be bigger than anything I can recall since I came to Washington in 1972.”
In the “human capital” package Biden is slated to announce soon, he’s widely expected to propose making several of those temporary programs permanent, particularly the expanded child tax credit and enhanced subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.
“If these proposals are enacted on a permanent rather than a temporary basis, Biden will have achieved more here [for lower income families] than any Democratic president since LBJ,” Greenstein says flatly.
And even that doesn’t exhaust the list: Advocates also expect Biden to propose funding for universal access to preschool programs and two years of tuition-free community college, a bookended pair of policies that would effectively extend the current 13 years of free public education to 17.
What makes the sweep and ambition of this agenda especially striking is that Biden is pursuing it with razor-thin Democratic majorities and lockstep opposition from Republicans in both congressional chambers. “Biden is trying to do some combination of the New Deal and the Great Society with the narrowest conceivable political margin and with a country that is sharply divided on fundamentals,” says William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was a top White House domestic policy aide to President Bill Clinton.
“I have called Manchin the last New Deal Democratic senator,” says Galston. “And he seems almost like a figure from another era, because there are hardly Democrats left who are in favor of expansive government in the economic sphere but not progressivism in the cultural sphere.”
Biden’s updated economic agenda
Yet Biden was reared in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a blue-collar city, when working-class Whites were the backbone of the Democrats’ “New Deal” coalition, and he never seems more comfortable than when he’s standing in a union hall talking about creating good union jobs through public investments or providing a ladder of opportunity through expanded education and training programs. His public appearances as President have been focused primarily on kitchen-table concerns: shots in arms, checks in pockets and now shovels in the ground.
“This economic agenda is not your grandfather’s economic agenda: It is a very modern economic agenda with a 21st-century economic perspective,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who served as one of Biden’s principal pollsters during the campaign. “This economic agenda has more equity and race and gender than any economic agenda I’ve ever seen in my lifetime for this party. It is not a colorblind economic agenda. It really intertwines, rightly so, effectively so, the race and gender components of our modern times.”
“Their inability to move some of this rapidly, it may be a blessing in disguise,” says former Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee. “When you get that kind of rapid social change there’s always a reaction to it, and the people who stand to gain get complacent and the people on the other side get angry.”
Will patience wear thin?
McElwee, who polls mostly for progressive groups and candidates, says that for all the energy around cultural and racial causes in the party, Biden’s emphasis on the direct economic issues accurately reflects the preferences of the broad Democratic coalition, if not necessarily the well-educated activists most visible on social media and in the press. While “the $100,000 to $300,000 a year college-educated suburban and urban professional” may be most focused on cultural and equity issues, McElwee says, “that is probably different than the working-class African American voter in South Carolina.”
For the latter, McElwee says, Biden’s focus “on jobs, health care and the economy” matches their own rankings. “When you look at any sort of survey from Gallup or Pew or anyone, any reasonable approximation of what our base wants is around those issues, and I do think Biden understands that,” he says.
Steve Ricchetti, the counselor to Biden, told me the White House believes the party will remain unified and largely satisfied even if the President can’t make as much legislative progress on non-economic issues in the coming months.
“I think we’ve got to keep working on all of it; that is what we campaigned to do and what we are going to do,” Ricchetti says. “I do not think the assessment of how we are doing becomes harsh if any one thing takes longer to get done. I really think making historic progress in the way we’ve had, with what’s in front of us, will allow us to create momentum to get other things done on top of it.”
Any tensions won’t crystallize right away. Debate over Biden’s economic plan will likely consume Congress through the summer. Yet by sometime this fall, when legislators have done whatever they intend with that plan, a long list of other Democratic priorities will remain stacked on Schumer’s desk, blocked by Republican filibusters, unless Democrats agree to change it.
At that point, whatever Biden’s economic successes, patience among party activists could erode, particularly if a filibuster blocks federal legislation to offset the wave of red-state Republican laws making it more difficult to vote, a trend that many Democratic leaders consider an existential threat to the party’s future. If Republican resistance systematically stymies such party priorities, Biden may find that pointing even to a proliferation of new economic government initiatives that would have dazzled Democrats in the generations from FDR to LBJ will carry him only so far with a younger cohort of activists hungry for progress on other fronts as well.
“Wherever Biden’s heart of hearts may be, he understands he can’t keep the coalition together — I mean really together, not just united but almost unanimous — without bowing to all of the different factions within the coalition,” says Galston. “So he doesn’t have the luxury of choosing between generations. He has to keep them both on board.”