The Real Pressure is Now on Biden’s Domestic Plans

With the strategic shift to China, the administration can’t afford a grab bag of ineffective and poorly executed domestic investments

Hoping to move beyond its self-described mistakes on the withdrawal effort from Afghanistan, the Biden team is wisely restating its commitment to domestic renewal and investment as a means of taking on China (and Russia) in the world. TLP has strongly supported this effort and as a strategy for long-term action, it’s a grand idea.

The problem, of course, is turning ambitions for new legislation totaling trillions of dollars in spending into practical policies that prepare America’s economy and workers for the future – and equally important, are perceived by voters as helping them directly in terms of jobs, wages, educational opportunities, and family security.

As seen on the highly popular American Rescue Plan, support for “big, bold” action steadily fades over time as the immediate impact of policies like stimulus checks or public health measures turn into less noticeable or understood spending in other areas. 

With the Democrats now rushing to write reconciliation legislation on “soft” infrastructure approaching $3.5 trillion – on top of the Senate’s $1.2 trillion in “hard” infrastructure spending – the risk of screwing this up is high. For proponents of active government, the cost of getting these domestic spending plans wrong in terms of structure and implementation will be even greater than the “miscalculations” on foreign policy.

What should Democrats keep in mind as they move into the fall domestic push?

1.     Design of policies matters as much as the price tag. If Democrats are honest with themselves, they know they are flying blind somewhat in trying to write a set of plans to restructure American infrastructure and social policy in a few weeks. The risk of passing a huge bill that no one really understands or has thought through into terms of execution is serious and could fatally wound the effort to make smart economic investments and convince voters that their plans are working to help Americans – and help America in its competition with China. 

Democrats should apply a simple requirement to all of its proposed spending on child care, pre-k, college affordability, health care, paid leave, and clean energy: Every dollar spent should go directly to helping families afford a good life or to helping American businesses and workers succeed

If they can’t defend a policy as providing either of these benefits – realistically, and not through spin – then it should go or be rethought.

2.     Social policies should be universal and not targeted. The rush to pass important social policy could easily lead to efforts to scale them back for cost or other reasons by “targeting” specific groups or regions. This would be a huge mistake. The last thing Democrats need is to pass a monstrous reconciliation bill that leaves out many Americans, thus reducing its impact and increasing the perception that government only benefits certain favored groups.

On proposed paid leave, child care, education, and Medicare changes, any policies designed should be open to all Americans, even if they bulk of the benefits rightly go towards those with lower incomes or other financial pressures.

If you’re going to do an FDR-style social welfare expansion, make it universal.

3.     No waste or corruption or random spending will be tolerated. Having just lived through the “we wasted trillions of dollars in Afghanistan and got nothing but defeat” narrative, Biden and the Democrats can ill afford to have similar sentiments set in on its domestic plans. This is particularly true on the “hard” investments in roads, bridges, broadband, and climate mitigation where the potential for boondoggles and dodgy spending is dangerously high.

Biden and Democrats would be wise to establish a truly independent oversight body with experience across all the fields included in new infrastructure legislation to constantly monitor new spending, talk with the public about specific plans, flag potential problems, and suggest adjustments when necessary. 

Americans need to be fully aware of the goals, mileposts, and implementation steps for spending of this magnitude throughout the entire process.

The Biden team’s desired shift from the failures of the past to strategic competition with China is smart. But problems and screw-ups in one area can easily bleed into others if they are not careful.

The administration has a real opportunity to begin rebuilding public trust in government action by designing and implementing a serious multi-year effort to strengthen American families and businesses – and prove that America itself is back in the world.