‘Part of the fabric’: Democrats say Biden’s sweeping changes will be hard to undo

President Joe Biden is taking more steps to expand the government’s role in public life than any U.S. leader since Lyndon B. Johnson — and, unlike LBJ, he’s doing it with the slimmest of ruling majorities.

Now his challenge is to enact changes that will last as long as his predecessor’s have.

It won’t be easy. Much of what Biden has achieved so far, from expanded child tax credits to broader access to Medicaid, are temporary measures, amounting to more of a down payment on a government overhaul than an LBJ-style transformation. He’s also expected to roll out details on a sweeping set of social welfare plans, from investments in child care and paid family leave to free community college tuition and universal prekindergarten — proposals that are already running into stiff Republican opposition before they’ve been released.

But Democrats say they are bullish that with polls showing broad public support — even among Republican voters — for Biden’s moves, the president will ultimately be able to sign much of his redistributive agenda into law and change Americans’ views of what they expect from their government at the same time.

“It’s difficult to grant people freedoms and then take them away,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who chairs Congress’s Joint Economic Committee. “Yeah, some of these things were temporary,” he said, “but they’re also now part of the fabric of our economy.”

Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief plan signed in March garnered broad bipartisan backing in polls, with one survey showing that 77 percent of all voters were behind it, including 59 percent of Republicans. And although GOP lawmakers are slamming his newest proposed rounds of spending and raising concerns about the federal deficit, 55 percent of adults say the government should do more to solve problems and help meet people’s needs, according to an NBC News poll conducted this month.

That represents a sharp jump from the Obama years, and it’s the backdrop against which Biden will be unveiling the massive federal investments on which he campaigned. Democrats say public backing for government intervention in general and for Biden’s plans in particular has handed the president the mandate he needs to push through his policies — even though he lacks the landslide margins in Congress that helped Johnson pass his Great Society programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

“The American people are demanding things to happen,” said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.). “The American people are demanding that we do judicial reform, and it’s going to happen. The American people are demanding we do something about all these guns — it’s going to happen. … He’s going to do much more.”

To be sure, the legislative path forward remains dotted with political landmines, in part because the thin governing majorities in Congress mean that any single senator or group of three House members could have enough power to decide whether a bill lives or dies. Beyond the infrastructure packages, Democratic aides on Capitol Hill say they see much of the rest of the president’s agenda being stymied in the Senate by the filibuster, a procedural maneuver that requires 60 votes to pass a bill.

Even if the administration moves to pass Biden’s next pair of spending packages through reconciliation, which would allow them to advance without Republican votes, they would almost certainly have to rein in some of the most ambitious proposals to keep Democrats united in support. And already, some members of the president’s own party are warning that he is not doing enough to ensure that the work they are doing will last.

“Instead of making the most of our FDR and LBJ moment, we are in danger of inexplicably putting an expiration date on our own legacy,” Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) said on the House floor last week, in a speech focused on the child tax credit.

“Did FDR put an expiration date on Social Security? Did Lyndon Johnson put an expiration date on Medicare?” Torres said. “Why should we put an expiration date on the Social Security and Medicare of our own time?”

At the same time, while Biden and his plans remain popular now, that can change once more details are released and Republicans have more time to wage a campaign against them — as they did with President Barack Obama’s efforts to expand health-care coverage a decade ago.

That public support “has yet to pass the test of time, the opposition onslaught,” said Bruce Stokes, a former director at the Pew Research Center who is now with the German Marshall Fund. “And we know from the [Affordable Care Act] and other things that that’s effective.”

A shift in public opinion is what many Republicans are counting on to derail the president’s agenda. With midterm elections in 2022 already looming, GOP lawmakers and party strategists are embarking on an intense public messaging campaign against the infrastructure package and the tax hikes being used to fund it — a move they hope will disrupt the united Democratic front.

One path forward for Republicans is to sow discord among Democrats, said Joe Hack, a former chief of staff to Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) who joined the Daschle Group, a lobbying firm, earlier this month.

“You just need one Democrat to get upset about a provision, and you’ve got a problem,” he said.

Even if Democrats are able to get some aspects of their infrastructure package through this year, “they could be setting themselves up for a walloping” in the midterms, said former Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.). “That’s going to really stifle President Biden and anything he’s trying to accomplish.”

Still, to many Democrats, the effects of Biden’s steps so far are already here to stay, no matter whether the programs themselves are currently slated to expire. Beyond shifting public opinion to support government intervention, his relief plan is on track to accelerate the economic recovery and could help the U.S. see levels of growth this year as high as 8 percent, by some estimates, the most in decades.

Some of his now-temporary proposals, most notably the expanded child tax credit, have proven so popular and transformative that Democrats are betting that Republicans will be unable to undo them without risking a backlash. Researchers at Columbia University estimate that subsidy, for example, could cut the child poverty rate in half.

Having policies like that in place only for a short time helps build an economic case for why they’re needed, supporters say, and success could make it harder to let them expire.

“Woah boy, I do not want to be somebody who voted, basically, to put all those children back into poverty,” Beyer said. “That’s a tough message.”

And while swathes of Biden’s infrastructure plans have drawn criticism from GOP lawmakers, their popularity with the public actually increases when respondents are told that the administration plans to pay for the spending with tax hikes on corporations and the rich.

That Republicans have already put forward a counterproposal worth hundreds of billions of dollars shows that something is likely to get done on infrastructure, analysts say. It may already be larger in scale than the GOP would have proposed before Biden’s election. And the effects of rebuilding roads and bridges and expanding broadband access could last decades.

“The battle over whether we should have the government playing a major role in society or not, I think that battle is over,” said Sidney Milkis, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia. “The question going forward is what should the government do.”

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President Joe Biden is taking more steps to expand the government’s role in public life than any U.S. leader since Lyndon B. Johnson — and, unlike LBJ, he’s doing it with the slimmest of ruling majorities.

Now his challenge is to enact changes that will last as long as his predecessor’s have.

It won’t be easy. Much of what Biden has achieved so far, from expanded child tax credits to broader access to Medicaid, are temporary measures, amounting to more of a down payment on a government overhaul than an LBJ-style transformation. He’s also expected to roll out details on a sweeping set of social welfare plans, from investments in child care and paid family leave to free community college tuition and universal prekindergarten — proposals that are already running into stiff Republican opposition before they’ve been released.

But Democrats say they are bullish that with polls showing broad public support — even among Republican voters — for Biden’s moves, the president will ultimately be able to sign much of his redistributive agenda into law and change Americans’ views of what they expect from their government at the same time.

“It’s difficult to grant people freedoms and then take them away,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who chairs Congress’s Joint Economic Committee. “Yeah, some of these things were temporary,” he said, “but they’re also now part of the fabric of our economy.”

Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief plan signed in March garnered broad bipartisan backing in polls, with one survey showing that 77 percent of all voters were behind it, including 59 percent of Republicans. And although GOP lawmakers are slamming his newest proposed rounds of spending and raising concerns about the federal deficit, 55 percent of adults say the government should do more to solve problems and help meet people’s needs, according to an NBC News poll conducted this month.

That represents a sharp jump from the Obama years, and it’s the backdrop against which Biden will be unveiling the massive federal investments on which he campaigned. Democrats say public backing for government intervention in general and for Biden’s plans in particular has handed the president the mandate he needs to push through his policies — even though he lacks the landslide margins in Congress that helped Johnson pass his Great Society programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

“The American people are demanding things to happen,” said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.). “The American people are demanding that we do judicial reform, and it’s going to happen. The American people are demanding we do something about all these guns — it’s going to happen. … He’s going to do much more.”

To be sure, the legislative path forward remains dotted with political landmines, in part because the thin governing majorities in Congress mean that any single senator or group of three House members could have enough power to decide whether a bill lives or dies. Beyond the infrastructure packages, Democratic aides on Capitol Hill say they see much of the rest of the president’s agenda being stymied in the Senate by the filibuster, a procedural maneuver that requires 60 votes to pass a bill.

Even if the administration moves to pass Biden’s next pair of spending packages through reconciliation, which would allow them to advance without Republican votes, they would almost certainly have to rein in some of the most ambitious proposals to keep Democrats united in support. And already, some members of the president’s own party are warning that he is not doing enough to ensure that the work they are doing will last.

“Instead of making the most of our FDR and LBJ moment, we are in danger of inexplicably putting an expiration date on our own legacy,” Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) said on the House floor last week, in a speech focused on the child tax credit.

“Did FDR put an expiration date on Social Security? Did Lyndon Johnson put an expiration date on Medicare?” Torres said. “Why should we put an expiration date on the Social Security and Medicare of our own time?”

At the same time, while Biden and his plans remain popular now, that can change once more details are released and Republicans have more time to wage a campaign against them — as they did with President Barack Obama’s efforts to expand health-care coverage a decade ago.

That public support “has yet to pass the test of time, the opposition onslaught,” said Bruce Stokes, a former director at the Pew Research Center who is now with the German Marshall Fund. “And we know from the [Affordable Care Act] and other things that that’s effective.”

A shift in public opinion is what many Republicans are counting on to derail the president’s agenda. With midterm elections in 2022 already looming, GOP lawmakers and party strategists are embarking on an intense public messaging campaign against the infrastructure package and the tax hikes being used to fund it — a move they hope will disrupt the united Democratic front.

One path forward for Republicans is to sow discord among Democrats, said Joe Hack, a former chief of staff to Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) who joined the Daschle Group, a lobbying firm, earlier this month.

“You just need one Democrat to get upset about a provision, and you’ve got a problem,” he said.

Even if Democrats are able to get some aspects of their infrastructure package through this year, “they could be setting themselves up for a walloping” in the midterms, said former Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.). “That’s going to really stifle President Biden and anything he’s trying to accomplish.”

Still, to many Democrats, the effects of Biden’s steps so far are already here to stay, no matter whether the programs themselves are currently slated to expire. Beyond shifting public opinion to support government intervention, his relief plan is on track to accelerate the economic recovery and could help the U.S. see levels of growth this year as high as 8 percent, by some estimates, the most in decades.

Some of his now-temporary proposals, most notably the expanded child tax credit, have proven so popular and transformative that Democrats are betting that Republicans will be unable to undo them without risking a backlash. Researchers at Columbia University estimate that subsidy, for example, could cut the child poverty rate in half.

Having policies like that in place only for a short time helps build an economic case for why they’re needed, supporters say, and success could make it harder to let them expire.

“Woah boy, I do not want to be somebody who voted, basically, to put all those children back into poverty,” Beyer said. “That’s a tough message.”

And while swathes of Biden’s infrastructure plans have drawn criticism from GOP lawmakers, their popularity with the public actually increases when respondents are told that the administration plans to pay for the spending with tax hikes on corporations and the rich.

That Republicans have already put forward a counterproposal worth hundreds of billions of dollars shows that something is likely to get done on infrastructure, analysts say. It may already be larger in scale than the GOP would have proposed before Biden’s election. And the effects of rebuilding roads and bridges and expanding broadband access could last decades.

“The battle over whether we should have the government playing a major role in society or not, I think that battle is over,” said Sidney Milkis, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia. “The question going forward is what should the government do.”

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