In his first hundred days in office, Joe Biden did not lack ambition. On January 14th, before his inauguration, he announced an enormous $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that was signed into law in March. On March 31st, he announced the ‘American Jobs Plan’, a bill to overhaul American infrastructure that would cost $2 trillion; he is also set to announce an ‘American Families Plan’ to accompany his infrastructure bill. These proposals represent an attempt to solidify his legacy early in his presidency – a legacy as one of the most ambitious and transformative presidents in recent history.
These bills are significant in a number of ways. The coronavirus relief package will revitalise the US economy, giving rise to expectations of a strong rebound this year. Similarly, the infrastructure bill will reinvigorate America’s woeful infrastructure and begin to reshape the economy by emphasising sustainability. Both bills carry a hefty price tag; the US has now spent around $6 trillion on the pandemic, with Biden planning on spending $2 trillion more on re-vamping US infrastructure. This is an unprecedented amount of money.
But perhaps most significantly, the legislation signals a change in the role of the federal government. Biden’s coronavirus relief legislation did not just issue $1400 cheques, but food assistance, policies to prevent homelessness, child care support and an expansion of child tax credit that is projected to significantly decrease child poverty. His infrastructure bill lays emphasis on jobs and climate change and includes provisions to expand access to caregiving and benefits for caregivers. Together, the two bills amount to a dramatic expansion of the role of the federal government – a radical shift from his predecessors.
This has engendered comparisons with two Democratic Presidents who fundamentally re-shaped the role of government in the United States. Franklin Roosevelt used the federal government to lift the country out of the Great Depression with the ‘New Deal’. Lyndon Johnson introduced sweeping programs to create a ‘Great Society’ and declared a ‘War on Poverty’. These are comparisons Biden himself is keen to stress. On the campaign trail he repeatedly invoked Roosevelt. In March, he met with a group of American historians in the White House. Biden is aware of the eyes of history – and wants a record that will cement his place in it.
However much his ambitions may align with those of Roosevelt and Johnson, the situation Biden finds himself in is different. Most significantly, Biden faces a far more polarised political landscape. Already, Republicans have lined up to denounce his infrastructure bill. He also has far slimmer majorities. Unlike Roosevelt or Johnson, Biden has to contend with a 50-50 Senate. This hands conservative Democrats such as Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia disproportionate power, allowing them to demand changes to his proposals.
This makes it near-impossible to pass bills conventionally, as Democrats lack the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster in the Senate. The coronavirus relief package was passed through Reconciliation, a process applying only to budgetary legislation that requires only a simple majority in the Senate. Ultimately, the administration may have no choice but to pass the ‘American Jobs Plan’ the same way, albeit in an altered form.
In the first months of his presidency, Biden has shown ample ambition and demonstrated a willingness to spend generously in a bid to transform the US economy. In doing so, he is set to re-shape the role of the federal government. But it will not be easy. Passing his infrastructure bill and other legislation is an uphill battle and will likely involve compromises. But if he succeeds, his legacy will rival Roosevelt’s and Johnson’s. The eyes of history are on him, and he knows it.