By H. Harrison Coleman IV
One under-recognized benefit of becoming president is that your name has a good chance of becoming an adjective. The followers of President Bill Clinton’s Third Way liberal centrism are known as Clintonites. The word Trumpian refers to President Donald Trump’s bizarre form of right-wing resentment politics. The Obamians follow President Barack Obama’s half-hearted progressivism. The acolytes of President Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down and tax-cutting economics are Reaganites. And now, President Joe Biden’s Bidenism seems to have become the liberal counterpart to Reaganism.
Reagan was a transformational president: he stood against the idea of big government, often criticizing and even villainizing the role of government in people’s lives. He maintained that the most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Reagan left a legacy of constricting the size of the government at its center, an idea that until now, had defined the attitudes about government to such a large degree that even Democratic presidents followed his mantra; the quotation “The era of big government is over!” was not from Reagan or any of his followers––it was said by Bill Clinton. Clinton, the first post-Reagan Democratic president, would be indistinguishable from a modern Republican if you focused on his thoughts on the size of the government. How many Democrats today do you hear celebrating “the end of welfare” as Clinton did?
Enter Biden. We are now 40 years removed from the election of Reagan, roughly the same amount of time his presidency was from the era of Franklin Roosevelt. Biden’s first major piece of legislation, the American Rescue Plan (ARPA), signaled a shift in the Democratic attitudes surrounding welfare.
In signing the ARPA, Biden has indicated that welfare is back on the table in American politics. The ARPA is a $1.9 trillion bill that increased the Child Tax Credit from a rebate of $2,000 per child to $3,000 per kid under seventeen and $3,600 for children under six years old.
The ARPA was a smorgasbord to welfare enthusiasts––the bill increased federal unemployment payments of $300 per week, a 15% increase in the food stamp benefits, a tax credit that entices companies to offer paid sick leave and $20 billion allocated to help struggling renters who due to the pandemic cannot afford to pay. The ARPA includes provisions that entice red states to expand Medicare under the Affordable Care Act, signaling Biden’s future goals to reform healthcare to be more accessible and cheap.
Already, the ARPA is being compared to Obama’s Recovery Act, which helped stabilize the economy after the 2008 Recession. But now we are seeing something new in Biden’s America: in a March interview with CNN, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has criticised Obama’s Recovery Act, saying the Democrats have made a mistake in allowing for the GOP to have a say in the 2008 recovery bill, and took shots at Senator Susan Collins, a famously bipartisan Republican Senator from Maine, for aiding in watering down the 2008 bill.
Why the sudden change in Democratic attitudes surrounding welfare? It’s hard to pick just one. The loudest voice in Biden’s ear may be that the Progressives. Forbes, in 2016—before the rise of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14), before Democratic Socialists were turning heads in Nevada and before the unexpected progressivism of the Biden presidency—got it exactly right. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), though he lost the Democratic primary, won something else: the heart and soul of a rising faction of the Democratic Party. Before Sanders took the mic on that fateful day in 2016, the prospect of universal healthcare was a fringe, unserious movement. As of 2020, it had 69% support among American voters. That faction is one that Biden must contend with in his closely divided House and Senate.
Another theory for the progressive turn of events is that it’s just time for another Progressive Era. In his book, The Cycles of Constitutional Time, historian Jack Balkin speculates that we’ve entered a new era in American politics. He argues that new political eras begin with an unpopular incumbent president losing re-election, such as how Jimmy Carter lost re-election to Ronald Raegan in 1980 and how Herber Hoover lost re-election to FDR in 1932. Balkin likens Trump and his loss to a popular, ideologically different president to these one-termers, with Biden playing the role of the agent of change.
Already, Biden plans for sweeping action on welfare that would make Democrats of 2008 blush; his newly-released infrastructure plan, the American Jobs Plan (AJP), totals in at about $2.3 trillion and includes sweeping public investments in transport. The AJP would invest nearly $600 billion in road, bridge and waterway repairs, as well as vast expansions to public transit and electric vehicle infrastructure.
The AJP would also include funding to remove and replace every single lead water pipe in the nation, $100 billion just for achieving universal high-speed internet broadband in the U.S. and massive expansions to public housing. The AJP would be paid for by closing tax loopholes used by the wealthy and raising the national minimum corporate tax to 28% from the current 21%.
Biden has hinted at legislative plans beyond that particular package, as he eventually aims to make prekindergarten (Pre-K) free and universal for all American children, as well as making two years of community college tuition-free for all.
In his budget requests for the 2022 fiscal year, Biden has again shown his desire for welfare expansion. The $1.5 trillion budget would see double-digit funding increases for the Departments of Education (+41%), Health and Human Services (+23%), Labor (+14%), and Commerce (+28%), whereas the defense budget, a point of contention for the Progressive Democrats, would see only a 1.6% increase––one that does not even keep ahead of the inflation rate.
It seems improbable that Biden would become the next great welfare expansionist––up there with the likes of FDR and Lyndon Johnson. But it’s more likely than those seemingly improbable odds. The national opinion of Biden’s welfare is very positive––so positive that Biden’s welfare reform is shaping up to be what the Democrats are going to campaign on. Already, in swing states, the Democratic Party is hammering in the message that Biden’s reforms will help people with their “Help is Here” program.
This large expansion of welfare might just be the focal point of the 2022 midterms. Already, the Democratic frontrunner of the 2022 U.S. Senate race in North Carolina, Jeff Jackson, is campaigning off of Biden’s work with the ARPA. The reforms are popular; the ARPA’s more ambitious goals have strong popularity. The child tax credits enjoy an 85% approval rating, for instance. As for the AJP, it too is popular: according to a Reuters poll, about 79% of Americans approve of the AJP’s roads and trains overhaul, 71% support the universal broadband proposal and 68% support the U.S. removing all of its lead pipes.
If welfare expansion becomes a big issue of the 2022 midterm races, it’s very possible for the Democrats to defy history and win more seats. The Republican Party has consistently decried these popular reforms and may well suffer for it. The Washington Post called the new Democratic embracement of these wide-sweeping reforms a threat to everything the Republicans believe in—because it is. The ARPA passed Congress with not a single Republican vote, and any future welfare expansions will likely pass the same way. The party that clings to Reagan’s denouncement of welfare is going up to bat in an environment where the opinions of the vast majority are against them. Many Americans, on the other hand, have already accepted the truth that there is nothing to fear about the fact that Biden is from the government, and he’s here to help.