Joe Biden’s economic recovery has a narrative. Now, it needs a legacy.
March 17, 2021 Mother Jones
Joe Biden took a victory lap when he went on the TV airwaves for his first presidential address last Thursday. “America is coming back,” he announced, a comeback premised on the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package he’d signed into law earlier that day. If history proves Biden right, he will have already offered future generations something fond to recall as they gaze upon his oil painting: It was under our 46th president that the United States defeated a pandemic and yanked the economy back from a precipice.
But Biden did not campaign on the stimulus as his lasting economic legacy. That was just the prerequisite for an ambitious job and infrastructure package, one he promised would not simply pull the economy out of a pandemic-induced collapse, but leave it better than the pandemic found it. It would be, in the estimation of Biden and his aides, a signature achievement worthy of the FDR-sized legacy to which he aspires. “This is our moment to imagine and to build a new American economy,” Biden declared on the campaign trail last July. That reimagination took the form of his campaign’s Build Back Better plan, a whopping $7.3 trillion in investments across the US economy. Biden proposed $700 billion in American manufacturing, $2 trillion in clean energy and infrastructure, more than $1 trillion in child and elder care, and billions more to address racial equity.
With the stimulus in the rearview mirror, the White House is now turning its attention to that agenda. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi directed her chamber to begin work on a “big, bold, and transformational infrastructure package” last Friday; Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is overseeing similar conversations. Biden’s campaign promises are now being pitted against the practicalities of governing, and the scope, cost, and timing of this package are all up for debate. So, too, is Biden’s own hope that the package would garner at least some Republican support.
There’s also a recognition that this next phase could be one of the only chances he has to pass major legislation during his first term in office, and certainly before the 2022 midterm elections—especially as long as the Senate Democrats refused to revoke the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold for passing most legislation. Biden himself has only suggested tweaks to the filibuster to make it more onerous on the minority, not actually getting rid of it. And so the jobs plan has already become the theater for Democrats’ battles over the shape Biden’s legacy should take—both in what he achieves, and how he achieves it.
The stimulus bill Biden signed last week is, by many measures, a watershed piece of legislation. The price tag alone repudiates the austerity politics that haunted President Obama’s recovery efforts, and safety net protections amount to a war on poverty unseen since Lyndon Johnson declared his own 60 years ago. But despite the size and scope, it is a bill conceived of, negotiated, and passed under the banner of crisis, and its construction reflects that. Most of the ambitious measures are temporary, either in the form of one-time payments or provisions that expire at the end of a year.
In the weeks leading up to the stimulus’s passage, the White House took meetings with union heads, business leaders, and lawmakers that telegraphed a desire to tackle infrastructure next. Biden said as much during an Oval Office meeting with Democratic House leaders and committee chairs last month, when the president said he could “hardly wait” to begin working with Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the House’s infrastructure committee, on the subject. Pelosi’s announcement clarifies that it is, indeed, where the party will now channel its energy, specifically naming transportation, energy, broadband, education, housing, and water systems for “job-creating initiatives,” leaving room for “other critical priorities.”
An open season has begun for advocates fighting to ensure their pet issues are among those “other critical priorities.” At the end of February, for example, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Service Employees International Union asked fellow progressive organizations to sign a letter demanding Biden uphold the $450 billion investment in home and community-based care that his campaign promised. “A lot of people are going to be talking about infrastructure in the coming days, and that is important, absolutely,” Ai-jen Poo, the senior adviser to Care in Action and the executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, tells me. “What we’re trying to say here is the infrastructure that is required for caregiving services to families is as essential as roads, bridges and broadband.”