The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s budget shows why he’s still a popular president

(Evan Vucci/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

“The budget is a moral document,” as the old saying goes. Every choice the federal government makes to spend money here and cut money there involves choices about who matters, why we should take one course rather than another, and what we as a society value.

Which we should keep in mind now that President Biden’s White House is releasing the first budget of his presidency. Here’s the New York Times’s summary of what it contains:

The levels of taxation and spending in Mr. Biden’s plans would expand the federal fiscal footprint to levels rarely seen in the postwar era to fund investments that his administration says are crucial to keeping America competitive. That includes money for roads, water pipes, broadband internet, electric vehicle charging stations and advanced manufacturing research. It also envisions funding for affordable child care, universal prekindergarten and a national paid leave program. Spending on national defense would also grow, though it would decline as a share of the economy.

On the national defense question, I would note that this year we’re spending more than three-quarters of a trillion dollars on the military, so much that the Pentagon can’t even keep track of where it all goes. But that won’t stop Republicans from complaining that without enormous increases in military spending, we will be terribly vulnerable to foreign invasion.

Mostly, however, the opposition will be aghast at Biden’s budget, not because it wouldn’t spend enough on the things they like, but because it would spend too much on the things they don’t like. Which it would.

The president’s budget is really just for show. Congress writes the real budget, and while it will take the president’s desires into consideration and negotiate with the White House, the people on Capitol Hill will be the real deciders.

But the fact that the president’s budget is something of a wish list makes it useful. It tells us what his party would do if it were unconstrained by politics or the complexities of passing a bill through Congress.

We saw this during the most recent Republican administration, when every year President Donald Trump’s White House would release the budgetary version of a slasher flick. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, housing assistance, food stamps, environmental protection — all would have been cut to the bone if he had his way.

Trump probably couldn’t have told you what was in his budgets if his life depended on it. But they reflected a Republican consensus on what they would do if they could.

Critically, it was politics more than anything that stopped them. Even with complete control of Congress for the first two years of Trump’s presidency, they didn’t slash Social Security or Medicare, and they tried to undermine Medicaid only at the margins. While Trump’s budgets proposed reversing the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid, after their dramatic failure to repeal the ACA in 2017, they never tried again.

In other words, Republicans themselves were too afraid of the political fallout if they made many of their own wishes come true. So they didn’t really try.

The same can’t be said of Biden’s budget. Its big-ticket items come from his two-phase infrastructure plan, one part on physical infrastructure (roads, water systems, etc.) and one part on human infrastructure (education, child care, etc.). That legislation might fail — much depends on whether Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) lets it pass — but the Democratic Party is not afraid of what would happen to them in the next election if it passed.

To be fair, the Biden budget document mentions some goals he’s in no particular hurry to move on, including lowering the Medicare eligibility age and creating a public option. It doesn’t attach a price to them, which is a way of saying to the party base, “I still want to do this, but not now.”

Nevertheless, Biden’s budget is a pretty clear reflection of what has given him the healthy (though not overwhelming) popularity he now enjoys. It says we need a much more vigorous system of social supports for workers, parents, children and the elderly. It says we have to make investments now to allow the economy to keep growing and to become more equitable.

It also says that in the short-to-medium run, deficits don’t really matter. That’s something both parties believe: To judge by their behavior, Democrats and Republicans agree that it’s fine to increase the deficit as long as what you’re spending the money on is worthwhile. The difference is what they consider worthwhile: Republicans will raise the deficit to fund tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations and the occasional war, while Democrats will raise the deficit for social spending.

In the big picture, the Democrats have the much more popular agenda; there’s nothing in Biden’s wish list anyone in his party would want to hide. Getting it enacted is the hard part.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Joe Biden may have changed a bit, but he’s still no radical

Jennifer Rubin: Ignore the hysterical commentary surrounding Biden’s agenda

Dana Milbank: McConnell focuses ‘100 percent’ on blocking Biden — and zero percent on America

E.J. Dionne Jr.: It’s crunch time for Biden

Christine Emba: Why conservatives really fear critical race theory