The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s big-spending agenda, brought to you by the Trump era

Americans are more in favor of government solving problems than at any point in nearly three decades, polling shows. A big increase came during Trump’s years.

President Biden pitched his plan to invest in American families and infrastructure in a speech to a joint session of Congress on April 29. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

President Biden on Wednesday laid out his latest proposal for a massive increase in government spending, pushing the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan. The proposal brings the price tag of his three biggest initiatives so far to about $6 trillion — what would be the biggest expansion in government spending in decades, if not since President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

And Republicans yet again seem unsure of how to fight back.

They have themselves to blame, in large measure.

A tweet before Biden’s address Wednesday night has stuck with me. It came from Gregg Nunziata, a former GOP Senate aide.

“Zero Trump fans will agree, but the radical lurch to the left we are witnessing is wholly attributable to Trump’s choices,” Nunziata said. “A modicum of responsibility and none of this would be happening. Hope triggering the Left was worth it to everyone. It only cost trillions, and worse.”

Whatever one thinks of Biden’s proposals, Nunziata has a point about former president Donald Trump’s role in laying the groundwork. I’ve written before about how Trump paved the way for Biden’s ambitious agenda by making the GOP revolve around him rather than any preexisting policy goals or defined ideology.

When Trump did try to guide it in a specific direction, he failed to deliver on things such as infrastructure, withdrawal from the Middle East and other priorities that might be easier for his Democratic successor to achieve. And in the meantime, Trump bulldozed whatever principled stands Republicans might attempt to make on things such as government spending.

That might be one of the most demonstrable and significant shifts in American politics in the Trump era.

A decade after Republicans responded to Barack Obama’s election by launching the tea party and warning of the evils of overzealous government, there is so far no similarly fervent pushback in the electorate today. Indeed, about a quarter-century after a Democratic president declared that “the era of big government is over,” the new Democratic president comes into office with the electorate more in favor of big government than at any point in recent history.

And that’s driven home in multiple polls.

An NBC News poll released this week showed 55 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that the government should do more to solve problems and meet the needs of people, compared with 41 percent that said it was doing too much.

Five of the six most pro-big government responses on this poll question? All in the past four years, since Trump took office. And that’s in data stretching back to the mid-1990s, when President Bill Clinton decided he needed to emphasize that he wasn’t some kind of big-government liberal.

Gallup’s data also bear this out. Its poll in late 2020 — toward the end of Trump’s presidency — showed similar numbers as the new NBC poll. Fifty-four percent said the government should do more to solve problems, compared with 41 percent who preferred that things largely be left to individuals and businesses. This was also the most pro-government response since the Clinton years.

Here’s how that looks:

The only other time in which pro-government views were nearly as popular? After 9/11.

That’s another point: the impact of crises on this question. It’s too simple to say this is all about Trump. The Gallup poll and some others have shown significant increases in favor of government action after the coronavirus pandemic hit, for perhaps obvious reasons. NBC’s data, though, show the current increase pre-dated that. And Gallup also had this question nearing some rare parity by 2019 (pre-pandemic).

Even more telling might be the low points for views of government’s role. The biggest dip came around the time Clinton decided to stress his small-government bona fides. The next biggest dip came the last time we had a new Democratic president, when the tea party asserted itself. Even in 2012, Obama’s reelection year, Gallup’s data showed Americans favoring less government rather than more by 61 to 34 percent — a far cry from where we are today.

One thing you might also note from the chart above, though, is how Clinton came into office with Americans relatively split on this question. Anti-government spending views also increased as Obama’s presidency wore on. In other words: It might not last for Biden. And that’s doubly so given just how much spending he proposes. The huge price tags could certainly play a role in moving the needle, with some nudging by Republicans.

But arguably more so than at any point in the last three decades or longer, the soil is fertile. Republicans might indeed want to ask themselves how they allowed it to become so — and how they’ve compromised their ability to fight back.