President Biden: unifier or radical?

The passing week has brought President Biden his first major legislative victory of his tenure. He signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act, a sweeping $1.9 trillion economic relief bill which aims to rescue the nation from the current health and financial crises.

This relief package is exactly what Biden promised – to send stimulus checks to millions, speed up vaccinations and fund the reopening of schools. It is what the country urgently needs and what most voters strongly support. 

This bill is one of the most far-reaching federal relief bills in American history. Firstly, it tackles the problems created by the pandemic by sending direct payments of $1,400 to millions and investing money into vaccine development and distribution. Secondly, it broadens the scope of the Affordable Care Act, which will in turn make insurance accessible to middle-class Americans who could not afford it under the original law. Lastly, this package extends the current child tax credit by expanding its eligibility and increasing the amount of money available to families. Some of these measures are only temporary and are set to expire in one to two years but Democrats hope to make a large number of them permanent. 

Despite many policy successes of the relief package, Democrats, especially progressives, did not achieve all their hopes for the bill. Notably, Senator Sanders’ $15 minimum wage plan was not a part of the final version of the bill that passed the Senate, after eight Democrats opposed it and the Senate parliamentarian ruled against including it in the budget reconciliation process. Furthermore, in order to appease moderate Democrats, specifically Senator Joe Manchin, Biden also agreed to narrow the income eligibility for the $1400 stimulus checks and to reduce unemployment benefits from $300 a week to $400. 

Despite some last-minute concessions to appease moderate Democrats, the bill should still be seen by all Democrats as a massive legislative victory. It is being praised by critics as one of the most ambitious relief packages in history, specifically by progressive Senator Bernie Sanders who has named it the “most significant” legislation in decades. Whilst concessions made to appease moderates were significant, they were a lot less consequential than expected, speaking to the negotiating skills of Senate Democrats and President Biden.

This package has not only been a victory for Democrats, but also for the general public, especially those with lower incomes. This programme has the potential to reduce poverty by a third and cut child poverty in half. 

This bill has evidenced the partisanship that has engulfed American politics. Despite the high levels of public approval of the bill, with 70% of the country supporting its passage, including 41% of Republicans according to a Pew Research poll, no GOP member in either chamber voted in favour of it. Vocal Republican opposition to the bill has not be significantly affected public opinion either, despite Republicans blasting it as “socialist” and “haphazard”. The fact that not a single Republican supported the bill could lead to questions whether members of Congress have started to act more as representatives of their party’s views, rather than their constituents’.

Republicans have also criticised Biden for shutting them out of the legislative process, despite promising to be a bipartisan leader who will be willing to work across the aisle. They claim that his decision to ignore their proposal for a $600 billion relief package and instead support Senate Democrats in using the budget reconciliation tool goes against his electoral commitment.

Despite promises of bipartisanship, Biden should not give in to lowball offers of the GOP. While the importance of listening to Republican ideas and aiming to work together remains, Democrats should not prioritise acquiring the support of the GOP if it would require watering down a paramount bill for the country. Biden should still aim to fulfil his pledge to reduce levels of partisanship and polarisation that have enveloped US politics; however, he should not let the promise of bipartisanship derail a major bill that enjoys record amounts of support from voters from both sides. 

Jovana Djilas

Image source: Wikimedia Commons