Biden Must Avoid Obama's Mistake When Setting His Agenda
2021-01-15 | Since 2 Month
Noah Smith
Noah Smith

The universe of possibilities for the Biden administration radically expanded after the Democrats clinched the Senate majority, but the increase in political capital isn’t infinite. When deciding which problems to tackle first, President Joe Biden should prioritize initiatives that address the pandemic while moving the nation toward long-term goals for public health and green-energy stimulus.

Biden can learn from the experience of Barack Obama, whose focus on health-insurance reform provoked a midterm backlash and probably forfeited a chance to boost the country out of the Great Recession sooner.

He should heed the words of Winston Churchill who urged, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Because crises are times when the public understands that change is necessary, it’s possible to make deep and lasting reforms. President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood this when he focused parts of his New Deal on long-term alterations to America’s economic structure, such as Social Security and the National Labor Relations Board. These policies not only contributed to the recovery from the Great Depression — the reason for Roosevelt's election — but created a more equal and stable economy in which workers had more bargaining power and old people didn’t have to live in penury

The US was in the depths of the Great Recession when Obama took office in 2009. With the benefit of unified Democratic control of Congress, he passed a fairly substantial stimulus. But it was still too small to make more than a modest dent in the recession. It was too weighted toward tax cuts and it didn’t include much of a bailout for underwater homeowners. Instead, Obama spent much of his political capital on passing the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

Now, it’s true that health insurance was, and is, one of the country’s biggest problems. And it’s also true that Obamacare substantially reduced the ranks of the uninsured, which was a big, important victory. But the system Obama crafted was a compromise, which left the problem of ruinously high costs mostly unaddressed. The legislation failed to satisfy many on the left, with a few now even labeling it as mass murder for not making deeper reforms. Meanwhile, Obamacare remained unpopular throughout Obama’s term in office and may have substantially contributed to the Democrats’ catastrophic midterm election losses in 2010.

Alternate histories are difficult to imagine, but it seems likely that had Obama spent his 2009 political capital on things more directly related to the recession — such as more infrastructure spending, a bigger bailout for underwater homeowners and a stronger welfare state — he'd have realized a higher return on that political capital. In other words, a crisis does present an opportunity for long-term reforms, but it’s best to use that opportunity for reforms that address the immediate crisis.

The Democratic victories in the Georgia Senate runoffs have given Biden an unexpected opportunity to pass major legislation in the first year of his presidency, instead of relying on executive action and the faint hope of bipartisan compromise. The left will be clamoring for major action on health care and a variety of other momumental issues, but Biden needs to spend his political capital on reforms that are also tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting recession.

The first priority is public health. COVID-19 exposed deep and catastrophic weaknesses in the US public health institutions. Right now, vaccination is proceeding at a glacial pace due to an uncoordinated rollout that dumped vaccines in the lap of state public health agencies utterly unequipped to rapidly inoculate the entire populace. Biden needs to come right out of the gate with a coordinated, well-funded vaccination plan that reaches maximum vaccination rates as fast as possible. In doing so, he also needs to bolster public health agencies and revitalize and reform both the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration after years of neglect.

This will be a bigger challenge than is popularly realized because of the possibility that vaccine-resistant virus strains will emerge. Biden will need to reorient much of the US economy toward vaccine production and distribution until COVID-19 has been decisively beaten all around the world. It will take a lot of money and a lot of will.

After the virus is beaten, the US economy will still linger in recession unless the government acts decisively to boost demand. The best tool for doing this, as usual, is infrastructure investment. And the rapid progress in solar power and batteries means that Biden has a unique opportunity to address the climate crisis at the same time. A huge build-out of solar power and electric-car charging stations, including subsidies to rapidly replace fossil fuel plants and gasoline vehicles, will ensure that the US economy comes roaring back while making huge steps toward decarbonization.

Public health and green infrastructure should be the top priorities for Biden in 2021 and 2022. Yes, there are lots of other things in America that need reform, including health care. But the realities of the political system mean these will have to wait. Reforms must fit the crisis of the day; Biden can’t afford to get sidetracked on a quixotic quest to fix everything that’s wrong with the American economy.


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