It’s Joe Biden’s good fortune, for lack of a more appropriate phrase, that the Trump administration failed to contain coronavirus in the U.S. and plunged the economy into a depression in the spring rather than the fall. The financial crisis of 2008 arrived on the eve of that year’s election, and swept Biden and Barack Obama, then a senator, into a position of accountability for the government response from the moment it struck.
Biden has no such role to play today, and the months between now and the election provide him ample time to recalibrate both his agenda and the kind of campaign he intends to run. The bitter irony of this crisis is that it struck at the end of the competitive phase of the Democratic presidential primary, throughout which Biden appealed to voters as a familiar face with few radical ideas. Now, per New York magazine, he envisions himself as an FDR-like figure who will have to advocate for the kind of big structural changes he warned against or shied away from throughout most of 2019.
We can’t know how the primary would have played out if 80,000 Americans had died and unemployment had reached 20 percent before Democrats began voting. But we know for certain that, as the presumptive nominee, Biden must make a dramatic transformation just like this. It would be a strange coincidence if the platform he proposed prior to the worst national disaster in 100 years also happened to be the right fit for the country after it struck. And more importantly, without FDR-like ambition, his presidency will fail. A president can’t inherit the kind of catastrophe Donald Trump is poised to bequeath Joe Biden and get away with performing so-so. If Biden wins, he will either save the country (and be remembered for it), or he will fail (and be remembered for that).
If Biden grasps this, as it appears he does, he should consider another thing: His legacy if he wins won’t be determined only by what he and his party do after inauguration day. It’s up for grabs right now. He and Democrats in Congress have real influence not just over what condition the country will be in next year but how much running room he’ll have to govern if and when he takes over. Unfortunately there’s little evidence they see the political game board this way.
On Tuesday House Democrats unveiled a fifth coronavirus response bill—the HEROES Act. It would provide cash to strapped state and local governments, rent and mortgage relief to homeowners and tenants, and another round of $1,200 checks to most Americans. Perhaps its most important provision would extend the enhanced unemployment insurance program in the CARES Act through March 2021. The bill’s cost-estimate, at $3 trillion, would make it would be the largest relief package so far, but only narrowly. Which is to say, it’s too small, and, perhaps more importantly, lacks the design elements that would allow Biden to govern unencumbered by Republican sabotage.
Several trillion dollars after the first coronavirus rescue package became law, inflation has fallen and gone negative, which should tell Congress it can and should be far more ambitious than it has been, and that an abrupt end to rescue efforts will leave the country mired in a crippling depression. A terrible scenario—the scenario Democrats should plan for—is one where Biden takes over from Trump facing double-digit unemployment, slow growth—and a narrow Republican Senate majority. Biden will not be an FDR-like president under those circumstances. Republicans will summarily veto further rescue efforts and deepen American discontent to carve a miserable path back to power, much as they did when Obama took over in 2009.
In fact, they are laying groundwork for this reversal right now. Republicans have begun hedging for the likelihood that Trump will lose by seeding stories in the press about their supposed discomfort with the amount of debt the government has accumulated. They could of course resolve to end new deficit spending and tax cuts now, while Trump is still president, and might still be re-elected. But of course, that is not what they’re saying.
That the press corps has relayed these feigned concerns uncritically—without reference to the trillions of dollars Republicans have agreed to spend this year, or the trillions of dollars in tax cuts for the rich they passed a year and a half ago, or the fact that they always rack up huge deficits under GOP presidents, then pretend to care about budget discipline under Democratic rule—only underscores how easily Republicans will be able to pull the same trick again.
The only way to plan around a scenario like this, apart from hoping Democrats win a governing trifecta in November, is to pass rescue measures that don’t expire automatically. There are (finally!) signs that some Democrats see the trap they’re walking into, and are pleading with their leaders to look at what lies ahead before it’s too late.
Charlie Anderson, a senior policy aide to Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), who authored the unemployment provisions in the CARES act, publicly warned that the Democratic negotiating strategy will end with inadequate federal support for the economy and no power to provide more. “The prevailing logic is that we’ll do more later if conditions dictate,” he wrote. “I’m not so sure, given where the GOP is now. And if we’re going to come back for more when conditions dictate, why not just tie the support to those conditions? It’s as if we’ve learned nothing from 2009.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has written legislation that would tie rescue measures to economic conditions, and his spokeswoman Ashley Schapitl explained these economic triggers are necessary because “one party”—that is, the Republican Party—“is willing to prolong economic misery for political gain.”
In the House, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA)—a progressive leader respected throughout the Democratic caucus—reportedly broke ranks with Speaker Nancy Pelosi over her unwillingness to include Jayapal’s plan to support payroll employment on an open-ended basis in the Democratic bill.
The House is likely to pass this bill Friday, after which Democrats’ power to demand automatic stabilizers will be diminished. If a version of it becomes law without stabilizers, their leverage will probably be gone. At that point, we’ll be at the mercy of capricious electoral winds. A narrow Democratic Senate majority could in theory eliminate or circumvent the filibuster to pass more stimulus under Biden, but even then, his ambitions would run through conservative-Democratic senators like Joe Manchin, who, upon learning of the HEROES Act, exclaimed, “All I can say is wow. Three trillion wow wow. That could be a wow wow—wow. I’ve never heard of anything like that.”
There’s a reason I started screaming about this in early March and continued as Democrats in Congress passed bill after bill, without showing any awareness or concern about the fact that Republicans will try to turn off the money spigot as soon as Trump loses. It was clear then that, should Trump loose, his successor would enter office facing an FDR-size crisis, but without FDR-size majorities, or a loyal opposition. Biden and his party have an opportunity create the tools he’ll need to mount an FDR-size response in spite of all this, but it’s likely to expire in days, and the urgency to act before its too late is coming from the bottom of the party, not the top. Republicans understand all this. Does Joe Biden?