President Biden’s economic agenda is shrinking fast—along with Biden’s own reputation.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told fellow Democrats recently that “the guidance I am receiving from members is to do fewer things well.” This sounds like a setback to liberal Democrats who want a social-welfare revolution, but there’s another way of looking at it: What took so long?
Pelosi is referring to the giant social-welfare and green-energy bill that would include virtually every Democratic wish-list item and cost $3.5 trillion over a decade. Some moderate Democrats in the 50-50 Senate—in which every Democratic vote is required to pass a partisan bill—have been signaling all year they won’t support such a huge bill or the tax hikes needed to finance some of it. But Democratic leaders have lumbered along as if unaware of this fatal divide among liberals and moderates in their own party.
After the embarrassing ability to pass anything by their own deadlines in late September, Democrats set some new deadlines—starting at the end of October—and began to recalibrate. The outcome now coming into view is less spending, fewer new entitlements, a smaller safety-net expansion than liberals want—and a better likelihood something might pass.
The Democrats’ so-called “reconciliation bill”—which would be able to pass the Senate with a simple majority vote, bypassing the filibuster—has several components: enhanced education benefits, child care assistance, paid family leave, clean-energy investments, and better IRS enforcement, among others. One big problem with the package is there’s no overarching theme voters can latch onto. Biden calls it his “build back better” plan, but that doesn’t mean anything. What Americans do seem to know is that it would be very expensive.
A recent CBS News poll, for instance, found that 59% of respondents know about the $3.5 trillion price tag, and 58% know it would include higher taxes on the wealthy. But only 10% said they know a lot about the specifics of the bill. One-third said they have a general idea what the plan would do, while 57% said they know little or nothing about the details. For all the public attention paid to Biden’s plan, it’s a glaring failure when most Americans don’t really know what it would entail.
That matters politically because it eases the pressure on members of Congress—especially the fence-sitters—to enact legislation voters desperately want. Voters aren’t demanding Congress pass Biden’s agenda because they’re not sure whether it would help them or not. Liberal Democrats such as Bernie Sanders blame moderate colleagues such as Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona for refusing to sign off on such a large spending bill. But Sanders et al. are missing the mark. They’re the ones who have failed to rally a majority of enthused voters to the Biden agenda. So, by the way, has Biden.
Will streamlining the plan help sell it? It depends. If it remains a grab bag of policy items, just less ambitious than before, that still won’t give voters a concrete theme to get behind. But Democrats could also focus on what’s likely to be most popular, and most effective, while scrapping the rest. That would give Dems—typically inept at messaging—a better chance to label and promote the package as something voters can rally around.
Analysis by the Penn Wharton Budget Model suggests education programs such as universal preschool and free community college provide strong return on investment. Childcare subsidies could help bring more parents into the labor force, where they’re badly needed. It’s not clear if clean-energy investments would yield a powerful economic return, yet there’s a strong argument in favor of cleaner energy given disruptions caused by global warming. Less effective: transfer payments such as the expanded child tax credit, even if they’re popular.
The New York Times recently asked policy experts to prioritize four broad social-welfare policies in the Democratic legislation, as a guide to what to preserve and what to curtail. The most-favored programs was universal preschool, with the child tax credit second, subsidized child care third and paid family leave fourth. So single ranking scheme is uniquely authoritative. The broader point is there are many ways to trim the Biden plan and still produce meaningful policy improvements.
The so-called bipartisan infrastructure bill is different—and that ought to be an easy win for Democrats. The Senate already passed it, and all House Democrats have to do is approve the same bill on what ought to be a no-brainer, party-line vote. That would be a big win for Biden, who takes pride in his friendly relationships with many Republicans. But feisty liberal Democrats don’t want to give Biden a win just yet, and they’re boycotting an infrastructure vote while demanding trillions in extra social spending they’re not going to get. These will be the last holdouts to accept the inevitable shrinkage of the reconciliation bill, and they could end up so blinded by progressive zeal that they torpedo both bills.
Biden has probably known all along he’d be lucky to get half his agenda. But he’s letting his fellow Democrats hack through the political jungle to arrive at the same destination on their own. If Biden gets both bills—the bipartisan infrastructure plan and a shrunken reconciliation bill of around $2 trillion—he’ll look shrewd. But he’ll seem inept if the whole thing collapses from Democratic intransigence. For Biden, smaller is better, big his own allies might decide bigger, or bust.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.
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