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14 April 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 6:55am

Will Biden’s presidency break the grip of Reaganism on US politics?

For decades, the Democrats have accepted the right’s critique of “big government”. Biden’s spending plans could finally change that.  

By Emily Tamkin

Having got his $1.9trn Covid relief package through Congress, President Joe Biden is now trying to get a roughly $2trn infrastructure bill passed, which his administration has named the “American Jobs Plan”. The bill would invest the money over eight years, which, according to White House officials, would be the highest level of investment in infrastructure and research, as a share of the economy, since the 1960s.

Overhauling transportation infrastructure would require investment of $621bn; $300bn would go to improving and upgrading housing and schools; and $400bn to care for the elderly and disabled. It would ensure universal clean drinking water – eliminating lead pipes from the country’s water supplies – and high-speed internet access, raise the corporate tax rate, and electrify “at least 20 per cent” of the yellow school buses that transport the nation’s children to and from school each day.

The bill received some criticism from progressives for not going far enough. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the left-wing House Democrat from New York, for example, noted the similar size of this medium-term investment bill – for spending over eight years – to March’s one-off relief stimulus. Generally, though, the Jobs Plan was hailed as a landmark bill, which, if passed, would go down as a major piece of legislation.

In terms of ambition, it has certainly exceeded the expectations of some of Biden’s detractors during his campaign for president. Biden’s rhetoric is measured, but he is effectively proposing significant redistribution from the wealthy to the middle and lower classes, not only by raising the corporate tax rate, but by using government money to revamp essential infrastructure, from housing and schools to roads and bridges.

There was good reason to think that Biden would shy away from big investment projects. Biden is, after all, the person the Democratic Party establishment rallied around to make sure the more radical candidate, Bernie Sanders, did not win the presidential nomination. He ran as a moderate, the kind of figure who could bring Democrats and Republicans together by being open to compromise and eschewing radicalism.

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During the primary debates, he challenged his Democratic rivals to say how they would pay for Medicare for All, supported by Sanders and the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. Word from Biden world during the campaign was that they understood they would have to limit spending after coming into office.

But this was not simply astute electoral positioning. Throughout his decades-long political career, Biden has been an establishment Democrat, politicking within the boundaries established as acceptable for his party by, among others, Ronald Reagan, whose presidency changed how politics was done and what was considered possible for both the major parties. As Barack Obama said in 2008: “Ronald Reagan…put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating.”

The success of Reaganism in reining in these “excesses” – the “big government” and spending of previous decades – convinced politicians from both parties that Americans liked the unfettered free market and prized individual freedom over the safety net provided by a more proactive state. (As Reagan famously said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”) If this economic libertarianism could be married to faith, so much the better.

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A generation of Democrats was formed in an age in which Reagan won all but 13 votes in the electoral college (out of more than 500) on this platform of limited government. His success changed the rulebook. Part of the reason Biden’s Jobs Plan would bring about the highest level of investment in infrastructure and research, as a share of the economy, since the 1960s is that limited government has for so long been the ascendant paradigm, setting limits on the ambitions of the Democrats as much as of the GOP.

That Biden is the person who appears to be snapping the Democrats out of their decades-long acquiescence to the Reaganite consensus is ironic given that he is a Democrat made in that same mould. But the apparent break with the past is not only down to Biden’s change of heart, but the result of a confluence of factors. There is the pandemic, which has revealed – and put pressure on those in power to address – the vast, systemic inequalities that beset American society.

Covid-19 has also created political incentives for doing something to alleviate these social ills as, it turns out, people across the spectrum do not resent but in fact appreciate the government stepping in to help in a time of great need.

There is the memory of 2010 mid-term elections during the Obama presidency, when, in the wake of the financial crisis and the economy’s slow recovery from it, the Tea Party was able to convert public rage into a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, stymying the president’s agenda for the rest of his term. There is the influence of the transformative ambition and rhetoric of Sanders, whose prominence in the Democratic primaries in 2016 and 2020 – and whose position now as chair of the Senate budget committee – challenged the party leadership on what constitutes reasonable Democratic policy. There is the fear of not doing enough to tangibly improve people’s lives, prompting a return to Trump, or worse.

Biden presents his policies in a more conciliatory, anodyne tone than, say, Sanders – “we don’t have anything against wealthy people” – and he is not the first black president, or a Jewish socialist, or a woman, and so is perhaps inherently seen as less radical by voters, who, in turn, are more accepting of progressive policy that comes from his White House.

Democrats appear to be rapidly learning that giving people money and support is popular. Ironically, Trump understood the first half of this better than many, which is why he sent out stimulus cheques with his name on. But the American Jobs Plan does more than send people money. It says that if people were ready to curb governmental “excess” after the 1960s and 1970s, they are now ready for a government that remembers it has a responsibility to provide for people who pay taxes, and to close the socio-economic gaps that have drastically widened in the years since the Reagan Revolution.

It remains to be seen whether, and on what level, this will be understood by others in positions of power in the Democratic Party, and how deep and long-lasting this change to the party will be. The mid-terms, in which Biden’s big spending will be tested as a campaign platform, are still more than a year away. Still, Joe Manchin, the moderate Democratic senator from West Virginia who pushed to limit stimulus payments, has said he wants to see a huge infrastructure bill.

If Democrats can hold on to and embrace this kind of thinking, Biden will not only have been a Democratic president, he will have transformed the Democratic Party.