The New Deal. The Interstate Highway System. The Great Society. When our nation’s leaders aim high the names of their accomplishments are enduring, etched in our history books. We continue to enjoy the astounding benefits of many of these federal programs, from Social Security to Medicare to the fruits of the Works Progress Administration.
President-elect Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, with its massive public investment and bold guiding principles, could remake the U.S. economy for the better, and if enacted it will join that list of national public achievements.
Or it could fall short in the way that the 2009 Recovery Act and 2020 CARES Act did: Allowing many Americans to keep their heads barely above the rising water of economic insecurity, but failing to lift most to higher ground in a time of immense need.
Our incoming president announced his immediate domestic agenda Thursday in what amounts to a pair of shots in the arm for the American economy. The first is focused on COVID-19 relief, which should quite literally put more vaccinations in the arms of the public and money in the pockets of millions of struggling American households. The second, which Biden plans to unveil in an address to Congress next month, is the framework of Build Back Better.
Fully implemented, this program as described would launch more than $2 trillion in investment in 21st century infrastructure, clean energy and domestic manufacturing. It would set the stage for a newly competitive U.S. economy with more equitable foundations, while turning the tide on the global climate crisis. America the laggard could become America the leader – that’s the promise behind the Biden plan.
But the list of things that could block its enactment is long, and that list begins with partisanship, political myopia and hypocritical deficit hawks. The proposed price tag on the relief bill is already drawing some complaints. Build Back Better will be another early test for the new Congress: Can visceral differences be set aside for the greater good during an economic emergency? Are lawmakers going to dig in, or are they willing to shape an agenda that will over time return dividends in terms of jobs and competitiveness? Short-term relief is a necessary Band-Aid; long-term investments will be truly transformational. Making them may mean tax increases and significant borrowing, which many on Capitol Hill have been willing to tolerate for corporate tax cuts and increased defense spending. If they now fret about the deficit while denying the working class a chance at economic improvement, they will show America their true colors.
We all know how hard it is to convert campaign rhetoric into policy that improves the lives of working people. The good news for Biden is that virtually every corner of the economy would benefit from substantial public investment in infrastructure, which he campaigned on: From the roads, bridges, and transit and water systems we must modernize, to the electric-vehicle manufacturing and broadband expansion we must spark. That makes them popular proposals. And by declaring that Build Back Better will be made in America, the president-elect will further broaden public support and put lots of American manufacturers to work.
Plenty of critics will be dismayed by Buy America domestic preferences in an expansive economic program, especially coming from a new president who is clearly more globally inclined than his predecessor, but context is important. First, even after four years of “America First” rhetoric, our country’s procurement markets remain far more open than other major economies that are part of the Agreement on Government Procurement. Second, significant public investments in the U.S. have been accompanied by Buy America preferences for decades, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.
Now is the time for another one. By combining a Rooseveltian level of investment with a Reaganesque “Made in America” appeal, Biden can cement his legacy as a president who not only brought us out of an epic economic crisis, but also shaped a federal policy that rewarded future generations too. Rebuild American infrastructure and rebuild American industry. Go big, so that the benefits accrue in working America. Joe Biden can do this, with the right allocation of political capital. I hope he spends it wisely and succeeds.