The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Our economy is in crisis. Only one of the candidates realizes it.

Joe Biden speaks in Dunmore, Pa., on July 9. (Matt Slocum/AP)

The American economy is in a desperate situation right now. It’s tempting to think that this is merely a temporary suspension of commerce, and once we turn the lights back on things will go back to normal.

This belief is understandable, but wrong. The economy is not simply frozen: Every day this crisis goes on it sustains long-term, even permanent damage. So we have to be very clear about what the two men running for president plan to do about it.

But before we get to President Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, here’s some of what’s happening right now:

  • At the end of this month, the enhanced unemployment insurance that provides unemployed workers with an extra $600 per week will expire, sending tens of millions of families from a position of stability into financial stress or outright crisis.
  • According to a recent study, at least 5.4 million Americans have lost their health insurance during the pandemic and economic collapse.
  • While the Paycheck Protection Program has helped many small businesses survive the crisis, it hasn’t been nearly enough. Tens of thousands of small businesses have already shut their doors permanently; by the time this recession is over, that number could be in the hundreds of thousands. The PPP is set to expire in August.
  • We’re on the cusp of a housing cataclysm: As many as 23 million families, or one in five households that rent their home, could face eviction by this fall.
  • State and local budgets continue their free fall, causing massive layoffs and cutbacks in services, while the Republican leadership in Congress refuses to provide the aid they need.

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In the fantasy world Trump inhabits, the economy can simply be switched back on; convince everyone that things are fine and they’ll all return to work and boundless prosperity will ensue. But it’s now clear that the economy will likely take years to recover from the damage it has already sustained and continues to sustain.

Worst of all, the president has rejected this fundamental truth: We can’t recover economically until we contain the pandemic. Instead, he has decided to simply give up on controlling the pandemic and let it run rampant, and insist that if he does some cheerleading for the economy, we will magically recover.

So when you ask the White House for its economic plan, it becomes obvious it has no plan at all. The administration is signaling that while it despises the generosity of the $600 supplemental UI, it might be open to some smaller payments of as-yet-undetermined size. The White House has, however, floated the idea of a “capital gains tax holiday,” a giveaway to rich investors. That’s its answer.

There is one other idea coming out of the Trump administration. Ivanka Trump debuted an ad campaign on Tuesday called “Find Something New,” in which people whose livelihoods have disappeared are urged to expand their horizons and explore new career opportunities. The company you worked at for 10 years went bankrupt? The restaurant your family owned for generations went out of business? Why not start a fashion line, or become a motivational speaker? Or have your dad give you a job in his White House?

So that’s what Trump is offering. What about Biden?

On Tuesday, the presumptive Democratic nominee released a new infrastructure plan whose goal is “creating the jobs we need to build a modern, sustainable infrastructure now and deliver an equitable clean energy future.”

In many ways, it resembles other infrastructure plans Democrats have put forth: roads, bridges, transit, water systems, clean energy, broadband, upgrading buildings for energy efficiency, and so on. He proposes to spend $2 trillion over four years to achieve these goals, and in the process promote union jobs and environmental justice.

The most striking contrast between the approaches Biden and Trump take isn’t only that Biden wants to do a lot and Trump wants to do very little. It’s also that the steps Biden proposes are quite purposefully meant to create permanent effects: not just a temporary infusion of cash or a tax break, but the building of tangible systems and resources that could continue to yield benefits even after the next Republican president takes office.

He has other plans, too; his campaign calls them “Build Back Better.” While he may not want to reorient fundamental power relations in the same way that Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren proposed in their presidential campaigns, it’s no longer possible to say that Biden isn’t being ambitious.

If Biden does win, he’ll take office with the economy not only still in crisis, but also facing profound long-term difficulties. Even if you don’t support the specifics of what he proposes, or think he’s missing other steps that ought to be taken, at least he seems to understand the gravity of the problem.

And Trump? As The Post’s Carol Leonnig reports, “the president seemingly has no interest in or patience for what he considers the boring work of governing, several of his former senior advisers say.” It’s becoming all too clear.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Biden is advertising in Texas. That’s ominous for Trump.

Jennifer Rubin: This time, Texas actually is in play

The Post’s View: Biden sets a relatively moderate economic course

Marc A. Thiessen: An interview with President Trump: ‘The real hate is the hate from the other side’