What accounts for this ambition? Most obviously, this crisis is truly extraordinary. The new leadership must execute a massive vaccine-distribution operation amid a broader effort to tame a raging pandemic, while securing assistance to struggling Americans plus a big burst of stimulus spending to address a deepening economic crisis.
Another obvious answer is that the politics have shifted. The Democratic Party has moved left on fundamental economic questions, due in large part to advocacy from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others.
But still another reason, one that has been less remarked-upon, is that many Democrats have lived through what happened when former president Barack Obama inherited another major economic crisis from another Republican president.
Obama opted for a stimulus that fell short of what was needed. Putting aside why that happened, what everyone now knows is that it was a serious mistake. Democrats lost the House in 2010 and spent the remainder of Obama’s presidency locked in brutal fiscal trench warfare with a GOP determined to starve the recovery with austerity to cripple his presidency under the guise of fake concerns about spending and deficits.
Many Democrats who lived through that, a lot of whom are still in Congress and some of whom are advising Biden — who himself experienced it as vice president — must be wary of a repeat.
Making them even more wary, one hopes, is the fact that Republican deficit concerns evaporated once a Republican (Donald Trump) became president. Indeed, the Trump economy was good (at least until the coronavirus shattered it) precisely because it was fueled by stimulus.
As Neil Irwin reports, the Trump years have caused a change among economists, who are now more receptive to a hotter economy — with higher deficits and lower unemployment — and less wary of inflation than they traditionally have been. That has fueled a political shift toward tolerance of deficits, making Democrats less wary of bad-faith criticism for overspending.
But on top of that sea change, Democrats have to be feeling extra-burned by the fact that the GOP pivoted so abruptly from voicing phony deficit concerns under a Democratic president to not caring about them anymore under a Republican.
The lesson of those years is that Trump was the political beneficiary of that chicanery. He consistently had high approval ratings on the economy, and he might have won reelection on the strength of that if the coronavirus hadn’t intervened.
Democrats appear to be learning from that lesson right now.
On still another front, the makeup of the Senate Democratic caucus is different. During the Obama years you had centrist old-liners chairing key committees, like Max Baucus of Montana (finance), Kent Conrad of North Dakota (budget) and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut (banking).
Expected to chair those respective committees in the new Senate are Ron Wyden of Oregon, Sanders, and Sherrod Brown of Ohio. All are far more progressive than those previous Democratic chairs.
Indeed, you can see these senators already impacting the debate. Wyden has pushed for supplemental unemployment assistance to be tied to unemployment conditions; Sanders for big stimulus checks; and Brown for an expanded earned-income tax credit. Some iteration of each of these is in the Biden proposal.
Wyden, for his part, believes this combination of things — an awareness of getting played by phony GOP deficit concerns and more progressive Senate committee chairs — will make this time very different from 2009 and 2010.
“The key lessons we learned were the importance of not assuming there will be multiple bites at the apple and not taking your foot off the gas in the middle of economic recovery,” Wyden told me in a statement. “We cannot let a popular recovery agenda get derailed by fiscal fearmongering that we know is unjustified and phony.”
“Committee chairs are going to be aggressive, and want to get things done,” Wyden said. “Overall, I think the dynamics have changed a lot since 2009.”
To be sure, it still remains to be seen how big a package Biden will actually wrest from Congress. He has already announced he hopes to pursue bipartisan support in the Senate rather than try to get the legislation passed with a simple majority via the “reconciliation” process.
So it’s still possible that Biden could end up on a futile hunt for Republican support or end up compromising his stimulus package downward. But there is at least some reason for optimism that Democrats have learned from what happened last time.