In 2008, President Barack Obama prioritized getting Republican lawmakers to support a stimulus bill in the middle of an economic crisis. The effort did not go well — the legislation ended up being far smaller than necessary, the effort to appease Republicans ended up garnering barely any GOP votes for the bill in Congress, and America was left with one of the slowest economic recoveries in history.
Twelve years later, amid an economic emergency, the lesson of this cautionary tale is apparently still lost on Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, who will become president next week. According to Bloomberg News, “Biden will seek a deal with Republicans on another round of COVID-19 relief, rather than attempting to ram a package through without their support.”
Bloomberg adds: “The approach could mean a smaller initial package that features some priorities favored by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. The idea is to forgo using a special budget process that would remove the need to get the support of at least 10 Republicans in the Senate.”
To know this is insane, ask yourself a simple question: How is it that Democrats take back Congress and yet the Democratic president’s first priority is securing a deal with Republicans?
Or ask a different question: How is it that an incoming Democratic president wants to actively reward and legitimize a GOP that tried to overturn a national election, even though that incoming president doesn’t even need GOP votes to pass a stimulus bill?
These queries become more mind-boggling when you remember that the Republican machine is on its heels after it egged on a violent insurrection at the Capitol. The GOP has no public standing, especially in trying to stop emergency aid in the middle of an economic cataclysm.
And things get truly maddening when you remember Biden’s focus on appeasing Republicans comes at a time when the new chairman of the Senate Budget Committee that could utilize budget reconciliation is none other than Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who remains one of America’s most popular political figures and who could use that notoriety to go big. Polls show there is broad consensus in support of huge new investments.
Consider that McConnell’s top priorities during the coronavirus pandemic have been providing businesses blanket, retroactive immunity from COVID-related lawsuits, and ensuring that the government doesn’t distribute direct aid to people who are starving.
And yet, here is Biden, prioritizing bipartisan comity and Washington etiquette in a move that reminds us of his old roots in austerity politics.
In one sense, it is hard to be surprised — Biden spent decades portraying himself as a fiscal hawk, and last month, the New York Times reported that he urged congressional Democrats to accept a stimulus package that included no survival checks at all and was half the size of the package the party had been previously pushing. He only belatedly came around to supporting $2,000 survival checks after Sanders and other progressives relentlessly pushed it.
To be sure, Biden has been sending mixed signals — he recently said “we should be investing in deficit spending in order to generate economic growth,” and he is pushing a far larger stimulus bill than Obama ever dared to push. That suggests Biden at least somewhat understands the scale of the emergency in front of us.
But that actually makes this push for bipartisanship worse — he understands the crisis, and yet his reflex is to first and foremost try to appease the GOP. No matter what Republican lawmakers do, Biden is constantly touting them as a necessary and good part of American politics.
The takeaway should be obvious, and it’s something we’ve been saying for months: progressives are not going to get anything from the new administration unless they are willing to publicly pressure the new administration. That means progressive lawmakers are going to have to be willing to fight — and progressive groups in Washington are going to have to be willing to prioritize results rather than White House access.