Democrats have every right to be pleased that they passed another big spending bill, but a lot of them are getting carried away. Longtime Democratic consultant Robert Shrum celebrated the momentum behind the passage of the so-called Inflation Reduction Act by tweeting, “Biden is the most legislatively successful President since LBJ.”
Some credulous journalists are saying the same thing. And Republicans have no incentive to correct the record: So be it if voters who lean their way see President Joe Biden as a progressive juggernaut.
The truth is less inspiring: Biden is the most legislatively successful president since Barack Obama.
Progressive hopes crested when Biden got elected, and especially when special elections in Georgia gave Democrats a Senate majority to match the one in the House. Biden had a “breathtaking agenda” of “radical change,” George Packer wrote in the Atlantic: America was entering a “plastic moment” when the liberal dreams of a generation could be fulfilled.
Once he became president, Biden held a meeting with historians that led to speculation that he could be another FDR. New York Times columnist Ezra Klein explained that Democrats had wised up about how impossible it was to negotiate with Republicans.
Among the items on the progressive to-do list were an expansion of the Supreme Court, statehood for places expected to vote for Democrats, a higher minimum wage, higher income-tax rates on high earners, a federal overhaul of election law, an amnesty for illegal immigrants, a ban on assault weapons, federal Medicaid funding for abortion, and measures to increase union membership. None of it has happened.
When The New York Times endorsed Biden in 2020, the first two policies it mentioned in praising his “bold agenda” were his plans to create a government-run insurance option for middle-class Americans of working age and to lower the age of eligibility for Medicare to 60. Both, The New York Times cheered, would move us toward “universal health care.”
Neither even made it to a vote. Instead, Biden has enacted subsidies to patch some holes in the last big move toward universal health care, Obamacare. This repair job on an Obama accomplishment is one of the major victories in the new spending bill that has Democrats so thrilled.
Biden has certainly been a bigger spender than previous presidents (although Donald Trump, especially post-pandemic, was no slouch in that area). But Obama, in addition to spending a lot by the standards of the time, created a new entitlement and massively expanded eligibility for an old one.
Through Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul, he won major new regulatory authority for the federal government. Biden, thankfully, has achieved nothing comparable.
There is one respect in which Biden’s legislative record is genuinely impressive: All of it has occurred with extremely narrow majorities in Congress. But the nature of these accomplishments cuts against the assumptions behind the next-FDR talk. The infrastructure bill, tweaks to gun regulations, subsidies for semiconductors: All of that came via bipartisan deals, which were supposed to be impossible, and without heavy involvement by Biden himself.
But it also came after six years in which Democrats, particularly the most progressive ones, let their expectations run far ahead of reality. They considered Bernie Sanders’ strength in the 2016 Democratic primary as a sign of socialism’s surging popularity instead of Hillary Clinton’s weakness. They took the loudest and most mediagenic Democratic election winners of 2018, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as a portent.
They took polls that seemed to suggest “Medicare for All” was a popular idea at face value, even though they gave that impression by glossing over key details. When Biden won, they credited his progressive platform more than his main message (I’m not Donald Trump).
Then came the actual Biden presidency. One initiative after another fell short: Raising the minimum wage didn’t even get a majority of the Senate. Measures expected to raise the Democrats’ popularity and pave the way for future triumphs, such as the “American Rescue Plan” they passed in February 2021, didn’t. (That bill may instead have stoked inflation, and certainly made it easier to blame Democrats for it.)
Biden’s legislative wins have left the U.S. with a top income-tax rate lower than the one we had for most of Bill Clinton’s presidency and half of Obama’s. Democrats just enacted a spending bill about a third the size of the provisional deal between Sens. Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer in the summer of 2021 — which progressives torpedoed for being unacceptably small.
Democrats are now saying they have done fantastically well, even better than they did when they had unified control of the federal government in the Obama years. It’s not persuasive. But it may be the best means available for them to rationalize coming down to earth.