The good news for Democrats who watched Joe Biden unveil a historically ambitious agenda last night is that newly elected presidents have almost always passed some version of their core economic plan—particularly when their party controls both congressional chambers, as Biden’s does now.
The bad news: Voters have almost always punished the president’s party in the next midterm election anyway. The last two times Democrats had unified control—with Bill Clinton in 1993–94 and Barack Obama in 2009–10—they endured especially resounding repudiations in the midterms, which cost Clinton his majority in both chambers and Obama the loss of the House.
The scale of the agenda Biden laid out last night underscores Democrats’ conviction that their best chance to avoid that fate again in 2022 is to go big with their proposals. Counting the coronavirus stimulus plan approved earlier this year, Biden has now proposed more than $5 trillion in new spending initiatives over the next decade—far more than Clinton or Obama ever offered—to be partially paid for by tax increases on corporations and affluent families. On cultural and social issues, Democrats are likewise pursuing a much more ambitious lineup than Clinton or Obama did; Biden is endorsing measures related to a panoramic array of liberal priorities, including election reform; police accountability; citizenship for young undocumented immigrants; statehood for Washington, D.C.; LGBTQ rights; and gun control.
“There’s a very different strategy this time,” David Price, a Democratic representative from North Carolina and a former political scientist, told me. “There’s an openness now to the sense that a bolder plan, ironically, might have greater appeal for independents and others we need to attract than trying to trim and split the difference” with Republicans.
That “bolder plan” from Biden and congressional Democrats is so all-encompassing that historians are legitimately comparing it to the two titanic 20th-century programs that transformed government’s role in American society: the New Deal under Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and the Great Society under Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s. “This is definitely FDR and Johnson territory, especially in the current age of polarization, where so little gets done,” Julian Zelizer, a Princeton historian, told me. [Continue reading…]