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Assessing Ron Klain’s viral claim about Biden’s achievements

White House chief of staff Ron Klain. (Al Drago/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

“The president has delivered the largest economic recovery plan since Roosevelt, the largest infrastructure plan since Eisenhower, the most judges confirmed since Kennedy, the second largest health care bill since Johnson, and the largest climate change bill in history.”

— White House chief of staff Ron Klain, in an interview with Politico Playbook, Aug. 19

We keep seeing Klain’s victory-lap quote pop up across social media so it seems ripe for fact-checking. Let’s go through each claim in the order in which it’s presented.

Klain cleverly framed his quote. He name-checks some of the most effective or popular presidents — and then does not say that President Biden topped their achievements, only that it’s the “largest” since then.

It’s important to keep in mind that comparing federal programs separated by decades is very difficult. A simple inflation adjustment can be misleading, given differences in the size of the U.S. population. Economists generally will compare as a percentage of the gross national product (GNP), the broadest measure of the economy, or the cost as a percentage of the nation’s output.

“The largest economic recovery plan since Roosevelt”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” designed to combat the Great Depression in the 1930s, unfolded over a number of years. It included such programs as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which hired millions of people to construct roads and buildings and also patronized artists to create works in a variety of forms.

Bill Dupor, an economist and vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, calculated that the cost of FDR’s programs accounted for 40 percent of the nation’s 1927 output.

By contrast, the 2009 Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed under President Barack Obama amounted to 6.1 percent of 2008′s output, he said.

Early in Biden’s presidency, Congress passed a $1.9 trillion covid relief package. That sounds big, but in 2020, under President Donald Trump, Congress approved four fiscal relief packages in March and April as the coronavirus pandemic tanked the economy. Those bills totaled $2.4 trillion. Then, $900 million in additional covid relief was approved in December. That adds up to $3.3 trillion.

The Biden bill amounts to 8.87 percent of one year’s output, according to our review of Dupor’s calculations in 2021, beating Obama. But Trump’s covid actions total 15.4 percent of one year’s output, easily beating Biden.

So how does Klain make this claim? The White House says he is also adding a bunch of other bills under “economic recovery,” including a massive infrastructure bill, a law promoting semiconductor production in the United States (the Chips Act) and the oddly named Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), a climate-change and health-care bill.

White House officials say that would be the equivalent of New Deal legislation. Depending on what you count, the New Deal can be said to also include transformational programs such as Social Security, unemployment compensation and a law providing the right to collective bargaining — laws, White House officials said, that cannot just be measured in dollars.

Still, by our math, the total spending for all of the legislation under Klain’s rubric still falls just short of Trump’s $3.3 trillion. But there are several ways to crunch these numbers.

“I take ‘recovery’ legislation to mean ‘recovery from recession’ legislation,” Dupor said in an email. “President Biden signed other fiscal packages into law, including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act. Those wouldn’t qualify as recovery spending using the above definition, although one could define ‘recovery plan’ differently I suppose.”

That’s what the White House argues.

“President Biden has delivered the largest, most significant recovery in terms of what it will mean for the American middle class, in line with what he ran on,” said deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates. “There is no comparison between the structure and impacts of the historic programs that President Biden has signed into law for the middle class — many of which will endure for the long-term, like having Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices — and those from the Trump years. This is simply apples and oranges.”

In any case, as we shall see, in this first line Klain is counting bills that he then references later in his quote.

“The largest infrastructure plan since Eisenhower”

Here, Klain again references one of the biggest federal investments ever — the Eisenhower Interstate Highways System, passed in 1956. Jeff Davis, senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, said the Eisenhower project was a “phenomenal amount of money for the time,” the equivalent to 5.59 percent of the GNP — about $1.3 trillion of guaranteed budget authority today.

In another calculation, he said, the budget for the highway system, based on a map negotiated by the states in 1947, amounted to 35 percent of an entire year’s federal budget in the year the bill was signed into law.

Davis said the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed under Biden — even when adding in the Chips Act and elements of the IRA — does not come close to those numbers. He said the infrastructure bill has about $383 billion in highway trust fund authority over five years, plus $446 billion in general fund advance appropriations and $15 billion in other items, for a total of $844 billion in guaranteed budget authority. (The bill is sometimes reported as valued at $1.2 trillion, but that larger number includes funding for highways and other programs that was already assumed as part of the current spending baseline.)

But Klain did not say Biden’s bill exceeded only Eisenhower, only that it’s the largest since Eisenhower. This appears to be correct.

Amusingly, as vice president, Biden once claimed that $48 billion of transportation funding in the 2009 Economic Recovery Act was the “largest public works project since the Eisenhower Interstate System.” That paltry number is dwarfed by the bill passed in his presidency.

“The most judges confirmed since Kennedy”

Klain is relying on a calculation by the Pew Research Center that as of Aug. 8, the first day of the Senate’s August break, 75 federal judges nominated by Biden had been confirmed, just narrowly beating Presidents Bill Clinton (74), George W. Bush (72) and Ronald Reagan (72). President John F. Kennedy had managed to get 102 judges confirmed by that point, far more than any other recent president. (The list includes judges for district courts, appeals courts and the Supreme Court.)

But by the time Klain made his comment, the numbers had shifted, according to the database maintained by the Federal Judicial Center. As of Aug. 18 in a president’s second year, Biden was still at 75 judges, while Clinton had leapfrogged him with 85. Kennedy still held the record at 105.

“The second largest health care bill since Johnson”

This is the most modest claim, as the health provisions in the bills signed by Biden do not compare to the Affordable Care Act passed under Obama in 2010, let alone the creation of Medicare, health insurance for the elderly, and Medicaid, health care for the poor, under President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965.

But health-care laws are notoriously difficult to pass, as Clinton can attest. The IRA for the first time allows Medicare to negotiate directly on the price of certain drugs — an achievement that eluded Obama and Trump. The IRA also extended subsidies, first contained in the covid relief bill, that made health insurance under the ACA more affordable.

“The largest climate change bill in history”

No argument here. Virtually no climate-change legislation had been previously approved by Congress, except for tax credits for renewable energy and other relatively minor items.

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