The greatest risk for a Biden administration
Things are looking quite favorable for Joe Biden. Obviously nothing is over yet, and Trump could still win — the polls could be off, there could be some late-breaking scandal, or the Republican Party's various attempts to steal the election could work out. But Biden has been solidly ahead in the polling averages, by much more than Hillary Clinton was in 2016, and only appears to be gaining ground. It might be close, but it might also be the biggest blowout in decades.
It only makes sense, especially given the dire circumstances the country is facing, to turn some attention to what Democrats might do if they win the presidency and Congress. They will need to act as fast as possible to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, the collapsing economy, and climate change (just for starters). The greatest risk for a possible Biden administration and Democratic majority is not attacking these disasters aggressively enough. Big problems call for big solutions — and if the problems are not fixed, the Democrats will get blamed for it.
Let me start with the economy. As I have previously written, the boost from the CARES Act has been spent, and the economy has stalled out about halfway to full recovery. With temperatures cooling off, it appears another major surge of coronavirus infections is underway, meaning people will be less willing to leave their homes and spend money until there is a vaccine. Without another rescue bill before the election, the economy might start shrinking again, and we could be looking at 15-20 percent unemployment when Biden takes office.
A simple consideration of risk balance leads directly to the conclusion that any rescue package should aim high. If the package is too small, then the economy will stall out again and the public will sour on Democratic rule. The party will get wrecked in the 2022 midterms, losing control of Congress and thus ruling out any more stimulus for the indefinite future. If the package is too large, then cash-rich people might spend so much that we see some inflation pressure, and the Federal Reserve might have to raise interest rates to compensate. The first option is orders of magnitude worse than the second — indeed, we could use a high-pressure economy to undo the damage of the last 12 years. (And as the writer Duncan Black sarcastically notes, "People might have a little extra money? Oh no. How can we measure the scale of the human tragedy this would cause.")
Yet the second road is exactly the one President Obama chose in 2010. He pivoted to austerity in February of that year when unemployment was still about 10 percent, and thereby deleted his House majority. The ensuing austerity binge worsened the ensuing stall-out of economic growth that left the U.S economy about 15 percent below the pre-crisis trend, even before the pandemic struck. It was grossly irresponsible in terms of growth, in terms of providing the safe dollar assets the world needs to accommodate international trade, and even in terms of lowering the debt-to-GDP ratio. It also created the political space for Donald Trump to sell himself as the pro-worker candidate in the 2016 election.
Therefore, the responsible move for a new Biden administration — both politically and on the policy merits — would be to take an estimate of what the economy needs, and tack on 50 percent just to be safe. Better still, they could establish a stimulus trigger condition that keeps the money flowing every month so long as, say, unemployment was over 4 percent and inflation under 5 percent. That would then accommodate an indefinite period of vaccine development and distribution as well.
That leads me to the pandemic. If there is a good vaccine by January, then a Biden administration must manufacture and distribute billions of doses as quickly as possible, for free (both to Americans and around the world). The likely fastest way to do this will be by invoking the Defense Production Act to force all pharmaceutical companies to crank them out simultaneously (with a reasonable payment for the service, of course). If there is not a vaccine by that time, it will need to build out mass testing facilities, and at least some isolation and contact-tracing capacity. A national mask mandate would be a good idea, as well as free mask distribution to every household.
Today, Trump is rightly getting crushed in public opinion polls for his handling of the pandemic, which has only made the situation worse. But it won't take long for Americans to start blaming the new president for an ongoing public health catastrophe. A Biden administration will have to show serious initiative and success compared to Trump or suffer the same fate.
Finally, climate change. This problem is every bit as bad as the coronavirus pandemic, it will just take hold over decades instead of weeks. Luckily, a bold climate policy slots into the above policy orientation perfectly. We will need direct payments to people to tide them over as long as the pandemic lasts, but at the same time we will need trillions in additional stimulus, and climate policy is the obvious place to do it — a crash buildout of wind and solar power (which are now the cheapest forms of new electricity in most of the world, by the way), making our homes and cities more energy efficient, phasing out carbon-fueled transportation and industry, plowing billions into green research, and so forth.
Remarkably, recent polling shows there to be sweeping support for most of Biden's stated agenda in these areas. Americans favor a $2 trillion stimulus package by 49 percentage points, a $2 trillion climate plan by 40 points, and a national mask mandate by 20 points. They do oppose a vaccination mandate by 31 points, but Biden should err on the side of coaxing people to get shots, since the faster we get to herd immunity, the quicker completely normal life can return.
One last word about obstacles — it is nearly certain that to get any of this done, the Senate filibuster will have to be abolished, and fairly likely that the reactionary Supreme Court majority will have to be brought to heel, either by declaring Marbury vs. Madison invalid or adding more seats. But those moves are simply a necessary concomitant of the bold spirit that must animate a Biden administration, if it is to be successful.
If he wins, Biden will take office with the country in worse condition than any president since Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. In a speech the prior year, FDR famously said, "The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation." When a country is falling to pieces, its government must act swiftly to patch it back up. People are anxious, confused, and desperate for leadership. If Joe Biden doesn't want to be the last president in U.S. history, he will take that responsibility seriously.