Biden Needs to Avoid the First Big Mistake of the Obama Era

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Joe Biden has yet to take the oath of office, but he’s already thinking ahead to the 2022 midterms. As Politico reports, the president-elect has begun “fusing his political operation with the Democratic National Committee” and is preparing to channel resources toward state Democratic parties in the hopes of avoiding a repeat of the cataclysmic drubbing Democrats took during the Tea Party wave of 2010, which cost them the House and kneecapped the Obama administration.

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No matter what they do, keeping control of Capitol Hill two years from now will be devilishly difficult for the Democrats, who will only have a narrow majority in the House and 50 votes in the Senate. The sitting president’s party typically loses seats in Congress during midterm elections, and 2022 will be the first set of House races following this year’s redistricting process, which will give Republican state legislatures an opportunity to draw new congressional maps wiping out Democratic seats. Keeping losses to a minimum would be a triumph for Democrats, but even then they could still give up one or both chambers.

Given all that, it’s encouraging to see Biden take seriously the task of maintaining power before he even sets foot in the Oval Office. What’s more, his team seems to realize that in order to have any hope of success, they cannot bank on political organizing and operations—they need to enact policies that make an immediate difference in the lives of Americans, and create a sense that the country is finally on the road to recovery from the coronavirus (and the Trump administration). That means getting shots into as many arms as possible, making people feel financially secure until the pandemic winds down, and getting back to work when it’s safe. To that end, Biden is pushing for another round of large relief checks, and aiming to speed up vaccination distribution while also preparing a major stimulus plan that will focus on infrastructure and green energy projects.

Again, the lessons of 2010 loom large here. The conventional wisdom about Obama’s presidency is that Democrats made a grave political mistake by moving on to health care reform before successfully turning the tide on the recession. But that in some ways understates the extent of the failure; the problem is that, by the end of 2010, voters couldn’t yet feel the benefits of Obama’s economic rescue or his health care plan.

While the stimulus bill that Obama signed was historically large by the standards of 2009, the best one could say about its immediate impact is that the legislation prevented a bad situation from getting worse. By the time midterm voters went to the polls, the economy had yet to really turn a corner. The unemployment rate was still 9.8 percent in November 2010, barely down from its peak of 10 percent. The housing market remained in crisis, and discontent continued to boil over bank bailouts. Meanwhile, in what now is widely understood as a well-intentioned yet deeply misguided act of political malpractice, the administration had purposely designed its signature tax cut—the Making Work Pay Credit—so that most Americans wouldn’t notice it, by delivering it through adjustments to payroll tax withholding. The theory was that families would be more likely to spend the money and stimulate the economy rather than save it if they didn’t know the cash was there; the problem was that people had no idea the administration had essentially cut them a check. The Obamaites took bold steps to try and right the economy, but to most Americans, the results were largely invisible.

The same, unfortunately, could be said for health care. During the bruising fight over the Affordable Care Act, Nancy Pelosi famously told reporters that Democrats needed to pass a health care bill so Americans could see what was in it (a comment that was taken somewhat out of context at the time). The problem is that voters didn’t get to see the law in action until well after the midterms. The first open enrollment on the exchanges wasn’t until late 2013 (despite the long lead-up time, the marketplaces still got off to a rocky start, thanks to the problems with The Medicaid expansion, now perhaps its most popular piece, didn’t begin until 2014. Voters got to enjoy some immediate benefits from Obamacare; kids could stay on their parents’ health plans until age 26, for instance. But mostly, the law Congress had spent months in a bruising, hysterical battle over remained an abstraction that had yet to get many additional people health insurance.

Congress delayed implementing pieces of Obamacare, such the Medicaid expansion, partly in order to appease moderate lawmakers who didn’t want the spending side of the bill to exceed $1 trillion. It was a case study in being politically pennywise and pound foolish; Democrats still got crucified over deficit concerns in the midterms, without being able to point to much in the way of concrete benefits for voters. They almost certainly would have been better off spending more and bragging about it.

If Obama’s first two years are a cautionary tale about the danger of failing to show voters you are making a difference amid catastrophe, the gold standard of crisis response remains Franklin Roosevelt’s rollout of the New Deal. When FDR was elected, the Great Depression had left a trail of economic devastation unfathomable to most Americans today, even after the annus horribilis of 2020. More than one-fifth of the country was unemployed in 1932, farmers were ruined, and the financial system had essentially ceased to function. On Inauguration Day, 32 states had completely shut down their banks in order to stop panicked depositors from withdrawing their money, and the New York Stock Exchange and Chicago Board of Trade had suspended trading. Once he took office, FDR embarked on a wildly ambitious legislative agenda, which went down in history as the first First 100 Days, and helped Democrats smash to victory, expanding both their House and Senate majorities, in the 1934 midterms.

What sometimes gets lost when people talk about the alphabet soup of New Deal agencies and initiatives is just how immediately many Americans could see and feel its results in the fabric of their day-to-day lives. (In part, that’s because historians for various unfortunate reasons long downplayed its success as a recovery program.) The day after being sworn in, FDR declared a national bank holiday, giving Washington a chance to stabilize the system. Within two weeks, the banks reopened, and Americans lined up to deposit back their savings, with the president’s assurance that their money was safe. Within his first year, Roosevelt had put Americans back to work through federal relief programs, made decisive steps to help farmers, and boldly took the U.S. off of the gold standard in order to fight deflation. Unemployment began to fall, and the price of crops and factory goods began to rise, to the benefit of farmers and businesses. The country went from a state of economic cardiac arrest to recovery. Importantly, Americans fully understood what was happening, in part thanks to the administration’s vigorous public relations efforts. Aside from Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats, the National Recovery Administration plastered its blue eagle logo across the country, going so far as to organize parades, including a massive procession down New York’s Fifth Avenue.

The lessons of the early New Deal and the early Obama years are fairly simple in the end: During times of crisis, move fast and fix stuff. Don’t worry about doing to much. Worry about doing too little, and about making sure that voters know that you’ve come to the rescue.

Biden’s team, which during the election often talked about wanting an FDR-like presidency, basically seems to grasp all of this. One danger is that the president-elect’s desire for bipartisanship will get in the way of his instinct to act; at the moment, Biden reportedly wants to pass the next COVID relief bill with GOP support, rather than using the budget reconciliation process to enact it through a party-line vote. Will he pare back parts of his agenda to win cooperation from Mitch McConnell & Co., or burn precious time cajoling Republican senators who might not come along? Hopefully not.

The other important question is whether moderate Democrats who can make or break Biden’s success in Congress have digested the lessons of the past properly, and understand that their best of chance of being re-elected involves ignoring deficit scolds at the moment and spending whatever is necessary to right the country and make Americans feel secure. Already, Sen. Joe Manchin—the chamber’s most watched moderate—has expressed squeamishness about bumping relief payments up to $2,000, preferring a more targeted approach. Hopefully he won’t make such objections a pattern: If Democrats aren’t willing to go big on policy before 2022, they will go home.

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