But to accomplish any of this, Biden will have to cast off some shibboleths of the previous Democratic regime in which he served as vice president.
Instead of seeking to change Americans’ behavior with subtle technocratic nudges, as Barack Obama’s team did, Biden should aim to make his signature policies as stupidly straightforward as possible. Instead of threading the needle of deficit neutrality, as his predecessor did, he should make a strong case to blow out the budget immediately to fill the hole left by the pandemic recession. Where the Obama administration’s approach was too often clever and strewn with budgetary wonkiness, the Biden formula should embrace the opposite: big, fast, and simple.
In 2009, President Barack Obama and the Democrats seized unified control of government during another deep recession. They fought the downturn with a then-record stimulus in the first few months, before producing the Affordable Care Act, which was signed in 2010. The stimulus and Obamacare were good laws with important flaws. Biden should learn from both.
The Obama stimulus was too small and too subtle. It was too small because the Republican opposition was intransigent, and the Democratic coalition was uncomfortable with the multitrillion-dollar deficits necessary to close the GDP gap. And it was too subtle because Obama’s team, including the regulatory czar Cass Sunstein, was transfixed by the emerging science of “nudges,” or sneaky policies to encourage Americans to make efficient decisions. For example, the tax centerpiece of the 2009 stimulus bill got money to families by modestly reducing payroll tax withholding. The nudgey idea was that if Americans got lump-sum checks from the government, they might save the money. But if they looked at their bank account and went, Huh, that’s more than I expected!, they might spend it immediately. Unfortunately, the tax cut was so sneaky that many people didn’t even know about the policy, let alone give Obama credit for it.
The Affordable Care Act had the same issues of size and subtlety, as Slate’s Jordan Weissmann has argued. It was too small because, once again, members of the Democratic coalition, such as Senator Joe Lieberman, refused to support its most ambitious parts, such as a public option. The historic act failed to make itself immediately felt, because its most important components were delayed to reduce the 10-year budgetary impact. Medicaid expansion, for instance, didn’t begin until several years after Obama signed the law.
Biden can rectify these errors by putting heft, speed, and simplicity at the heart of his agenda. And perhaps he will. According to reports from The New York Times and The Washington Post, Biden’s first rescue bill, with nearly $2 trillion in spending, will include hundreds of billions of dollars for vaccines and testing, unemployment benefits, and state and local aid. For inspiration on COVID-19 policy, Biden can look to Israel, which went big on early vaccine purchases, went fast and furious with distribution—converting parks, schools, and parking lots into vaccination megacenters—and used simple criteria for its first tranche of shots: health-care workers and seniors.