By John Wojcik
Ever since the days of the Ronald Reagan presidency, the defining narrative in Washington has been that big government is an unruly animal that has to be tamed.
With the passage of the American Rescue Act in the Senate and signing of it into law by President Biden later this week, there’s a new message being sent out to America.
The message is that it is not government which is the problem, but rather who controls it and for what purpose. An administration elected by the people to end the pandemic and put people back to work has turned government into the force that will rescue the nation from crisis.
The American Rescue Act becoming law reshapes the narrative that has controlled the dominant thinking about government since the 1980s. After Reagan and Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton continued the same narrative with his declaration that “the days of big government are over.”
Barack Obama tried to change the story, but ultimately, because of GOP obstruction, could not.
Trump fortified the anti-government line with new justification, claiming that there was an incompetent “deep state” that had to be smashed. The government was so incompetent, he said, that it could not even stand up against allegedly inferior countries like China, allowing them to even kill us off with a virus.
The massive public support for Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan throws all those ideas into the garbage pail and proclaims that government can and will stop the pandemic and the economic depression and, on top of that, it will do a lot more. The American Rescue Act takes a giant step toward fighting poverty, inequality, and other ills.
Reagan must be turning over in his grave. Some of the still-living right-wing Republicans, meanwhile, are quitting Congress. Those staying on are fretting about what to do next.
The reality of the situation is that the biggest pro-worker bill since the New Deal is about to become law.
“When I was elected, I said we were going to get the government out of the business of battling on Twitter and back in the business of delivering for the American people,” Biden said after the huge bill passed the Senate on Saturday. “We are in the business of showing the American people that their government can work for them.”
Tens of millions will save on their health insurance and millions more will be lifted out of poverty due to radically enlarged child tax credits.
Taken together, provisions in the 628-page bill add up to one of the largest enhancements to the social safety net in decades, pushing the country into uncharted territory.
Besides stopping the pandemic and jumpstarting hiring, money in the rescue package will start fixing income inequality, cut child poverty in half, feed millions of hungry people, save pensions, sustain public transit that has been crumbling, let schools reopen safely, and help replenish state and local government finances.
Biden has described all of this as a war being waged by the American people to save the country they love. And he is saying people will see results immediately and that they will not have to wait for years to see massive systemic change.
“People have lost faith in the idea that government can do good for them,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who spoke often with Biden while guiding the bill through the Senate last weekend. Now, as vaccines become more available and other changes take place, “people are going to see that government actually is making their lives better—which is how Americans used to think of it, and we’ve gotten away from it.”
Republicans oppose the plan and say it will run up the national debt to precarious new heights. They expressed no such fears, however, when they spent trillions on their huge tax breaks for the rich during the Trump administration.
Instead of working across the aisle toward unity, as Biden has promised, GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell says Democrats are “ramming through what they call ‘the most progressive domestic legislation in a generation,’” quoting the White House chief of staff.
Economists say the American Rescue Act could well end up spurring economic growth at the rate of 8% annually. That would be a higher rate of growth than at any time since and including the Reagan administration in 1984, and it would be the highest rate of growth for any big nation economy on the planet. A report from the OECD on Tuesday morning predicted that the U.S. economy will rebound twice as fast as earlier anticipated.
As sweeping as it is, Biden’s classically Keynesian plan relies mostly on existing health care and tax credits rather than on entirely new programs. It grows those existing programs, however, in ways that they have not yet been grown, both in terms of the amount of funding and the manner in which they are directed to previously unserved groups.
“We haven’t done this before,” Syracuse University economics professor Len Burman, a co-founder of the Tax Policy Centre, told the Associated Press. “If it actually does work the way it does in theory and the economy is back at full employment in a year, that would be amazing. It would save a lot of hardship and suffering.”
Final passage of the bill is expected this week—before expanded unemployment benefits expire on March 14.
But Biden’s signing celebration will surely be followed by Republican attacks wherever they can mount them. They don’t want Americans to buy into the idea that government run by progressives is far superior to government run by them. If the American Rescue Act achieves what it intends to, the Republicans will have their work cut out for them.
Many progressives say this reminds them of the Great Depression when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt backed unprecedented government programs that basically reset politics in the country for a generation.
If that is to happen again, however, the funds will have to be distributed in a fair, equitable, and effective manner because Republicans are ready to portray the entire effort as an ill-conceived, bloated, and inefficient process. The administration will have to show the public, every step of the way, that this is not how the rescue plan is unfolding and that it is beating both the pandemic and the joblessness crisis.
One of the problems is that much of the aid in the package is not permanent, and quite a bit of it will expire before the midterm elections in 2022. The Republicans are sure to jump all over any failings they can seize upon at that time and use them to try to retake power.
This is all the more reason to push for the success of all the progressive parts of the Biden agenda and to keep together and build upon the coalition that ousted Trump from the White House in 2020. (IPA Service)