Good morning. If the Democrats pass a sweeping piece of legislation, will Americans notice?
Barack Obama and Joe Biden in 2009.Ruth Fremson/ The New York Times
'See and feel'
President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus bill was an economic success and a political failure.
Passed during the depths of a financial crisis, the law's combination of tax cuts and government spending helped prevent another Great Depression. Stocks began rising within a few weeks of the law's passage, and the economy began growing within a few months. Yet Obama and congressional Democrats never got much credit from voters. His approval ratings fell for much of his first term, and Republicans swept the 2010 midterms.
Part of the problem was that the bill was smaller than Obama had wanted — at the insistence of congressional moderates — and the post-crisis economic recovery was slow. But the bill had another political weakness, too. It was a hodgepodge of hundreds of policies, few of which affected Americans' lives in big, tangible ways.
Can you think of a single enduring legacy of the law — a new bridge or airport that it built, or a new government program that it created? Probably not.
The law was both a triumph of technocratic policymaking and a failure of real-world politics. It was an example of what the political scientist Suzanne Mettler has called "the submerged state." The subtitle of Mettler's 2011 book of that same name is: "How invisible government policies undermine American democracy."
At Obama's side during the debate over the 2009 stimulus package, of course, was Joe Biden, then the vice president. Biden, who had just left the Senate after 36 years, helped negotiate the package. As Biden now tries to win passage of the most ambitious legislation of his own presidency, it's clear that he has come to believe the submerged state is a problem for the Democratic Party and the country.
It is less clear whether he will avoid Obama's missed opportunity or repeat it.
Congressional Democrats and the White House are now negotiating over what to include in a sweeping piece of legislation that they hope to pass this fall. In its original framework — favored by Biden and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill — the bill included universal pre-K, free community college, expanded child care, paid family leave, child tax credits, expansions of both Medicare and Medicaid and funding for clean energy.
But moderate Democrats favor a smaller package, with less government spending — as happened in 2009, as well. Some Democrats are also uncomfortable with either raising the money needed to pay for the bill (through tax increases on the rich and corporations) or adding to the deficit. As a result, Democrats are now shrinking the plan from its initial cost of $3.5 trillion, spread over 10 years, and being forced to make hard choices about what should remain.
Those choices, in turn, have led to disagreements that break down not along predictable ideological lines but instead what I think of as technocratic/realpolitik lines.
The technocratic camp includes those Democrats — including many on the left — who favor a cost-benefit approach. They want to do the most amount of good, helping the greatest number of people, with the available dollars.
Works Progress Administration workers in Tennessee in 1936.Associated Press
One example: an expansion of Obamacare to include lower-income people in the 12 states (largely Republican-run) that have declined to expand Medicaid on their own. Many of these people lack health insurance and go without some forms of basic medical care. Another such policy Democrats are considering: an expansion of federal subsidies that help middle-class families buy private health insurance through Obamacare.
The realpolitik camp has a different emphasis. While still favoring expansions of Obamacare, these Democrats fear that the party will be repeating its mistakes of the Obama years if it focuses on improvements to complex bureaucratic programs.
For inspiration, this side can point to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was often ruthless about considering the political salience of his policies. Once, when rebuffing the advice of one economic adviser about the structure of some new taxes, Roosevelt said: "I guess you're right on the economics. They are politics all the way through."
The realpolitik camp includes Senator Bernie Sanders, who prefers to expand Medicare, partly because he sees it as a popular, easy-to-understand program that will both help the poor and serve as the basis for truly universal health care. That description doesn't apply to Medicaid. "We've got to explain to the American people what we're doing here for them," Sanders said on a recent trip through the Midwest to promote the Biden program, "and it can't simply be an inside-the-Beltway process."
Biden shares this view. As The Washington Post reports, "Biden is pushing programs whose benefits voters can easily grasp, according to aides and friends, such as universal prekindergarten and free community college." He favors drug-price reductions for related reasons. Mike Donilon, a top Biden aide, has said, "The president is focused on having government deliver in a way that people can see and feel in their lives."
Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages, and both will no doubt shape the final bill. But in a sprawling plan that already lacks focus — the most common ways to describe it are process-oriented terms like "the $3.5 trillion bill" or "the reconciliation bill" — the bigger risk for the Democrats seems to be that they will pay too little attention to political realities. If they pass a bill that voters do not understand, Democrats are unlikely to control the levers of federal policymaking for long.
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ARTS AND IDEAS
The LaQuan Smith show at New York Fashion Week.Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times
Old and new at New York Fashion Week
New York Fashion Week came to a close this past weekend. At the Rodarte show on Saturday, tinkling music played as models floated across a sculpture-adorned courtyard in shimmering dresses. It felt like a tribute to the natural world: There were mushroom-printed silk dresses that billowed like parachutes, as well as embroidered flowers, shells and a cape bearing a sequined alien. For the finale, models strolled out barefoot in simple, neutral looks, the last one holding a succulent.
In a review of the week's final shows, Vanessa Friedman, The Times's chief fashion critic, wrote about the "growing fault line" between the city's older, well-established brands and newer labels with more raw and socially conscious sensibilities.
"The clothes that seemed most relevant spoke not in a generic form of sunny-side-up glamour but in a primal assertion of difference," Vanessa wrote. Read the rest of her review. — Sanam Yar, a Morning writer
Good morning. The sprint for President Biden's signature legislative plan has begun.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill in August.Oliver Contreras for The New York Times
'This is the Biden agenda'
Early in Bill Clinton's presidency, House Democrats voted to pass an energy tax, known as the B.T.U. tax, only to watch the Senate prevent the bill from becoming law. In the next midterm elections, more than 25 of the House Democrats who had voted for the bill lost re-election.
Early in Barack Obama's presidency, history repeated itself. House Democrats voted for a cap-and-trade plan to address climate change, and the Senate blocked the bill. In the next midterms, many House Democrats struggled to defend their votes.
That history helps explain the approach that congressional Democrats are taking on the biggest piece of President Biden's agenda — a $3.5 trillion plan to slow climate change, expand health care and education, cut poverty and increase taxes on the wealthy.
Many House Democrats are worried about "getting B.T.U.'d" again, as some have put it. They do not want to take a tough vote that ends up having no policy impact. "Some of us were here in 2010, when we took certain votes," Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, has said, "and the Senate didn't take certain votes."
In response, House Democrats are insisting that the two chambers negotiate up front over what bill they can each pass. Only after they have reached a deal will the House vote on it, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has suggested.
Those negotiations have begun, and they will proceed quickly over the next few weeks. By the end of September, the fate of the bill — and, by extension, Biden's bid for a consequential presidency — will probably be clear.
"This is the Biden agenda," Carl Hulse, The Times's chief Washington correspondent, says. "There is a lot that has to happen, but I think most of the Democrats realize they don't have a choice. If they don't do this, they probably don't do anything."
This morning, I'll walk you three pressing questions about the effort:
1. Why the rush?
The rapid timetable stems in part from a longstanding rule of Capitol Hill politics: Protracted negotiations damage a bill's popularity. Opponents step up their lobbying. Internal party factions fight with each other. And voters are turned off by the messiness, even when the underlying policies are popular, as is the case here. Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist, has tweeted: "Speed is Dems' best friend. The longer this lags, the harder/smaller it gets."
With this bill, there is also another reason for speed. To keep both progressive and moderate Democrats happy, party leaders must pass both a version of the $3.5 trillion plan (a progressive priority) as well as a smaller physical infrastructure bill (a bipartisan priority). If the two do not pass around the same time this fall, support for both could crumble.
Pelosi has promised a vote on the infrastructure bill by Sept. 27.
2. What about Manchin?
Last week, Senator Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for "a strategic pause" on the $3.5 trillion bill. Taken at face value, his position could doom the bill, since his vote is needed.
But Manchin frequently makes high-profile statements to distance himself from party leaders — and protect his image in deep-red West Virginia — while ultimately agreeing with Democrats on most issues, especially on economic policy. "Joe, at the end, has always been there," Biden told CNN yesterday. "I think we can work something out, and I look forward to speaking with him."
Even if Manchin comes around again this time, his criticisms may create problems for the Democrats by weakening others' support for the bill. "Manchin himself is generating the public backlash he is warning against," Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine has written. Another moderate Senate Democrat to watch is Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who, like Manchin, has indicated she favors a smaller price tag than $3.5 trillion.
Filling prescriptions in Brooklyn. Health care is a key concern of the $3.5 trillion plan.Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times
3. What are the sticking points?
Some involve provisions to help pay for the plan:
How much will the federal government reduce prescription-drug prices — thus reducing Medicare and Medicaid payments to pharmaceutical companies? How much will corporate taxes and investment taxes rise? Will Congress increase the I.R.S. budget and require financial institutions to report more information about wealthy clients, to reduce tax avoidance?
Other sticking points involve how the plan spends money. And one theme is the balance between helping the middle class and the poor.
For example, should the bill prioritize expanding Medicare through a new dental benefit — or expanding Medicaid for low-income people in states that so far have not done so? Similarly, should the bill provide the full child tax credit to families whose earnings are too low to pay much income tax (as Biden's Covid rescue plan did temporarily)?
This fight doesn't always break along predictable ideological lines. Bernie Sanders is pushing for the Medicare expansion, because he sees it as key to a better health policy, while some other progressives prefer focusing on people who now have no health insurance and would benefit from a Medicaid expansion.
Yet many disagreements do separate the center and the left. Moderate Democrats often prefer a lower overall price tag, which can mean less money for anti-poverty efforts. Some moderates also note that middle-class Americans vote at higher rates than the poor, which reduces the political benefits of anti-poverty measures.
Progressives argue that Democratic control of both Congress and the White House may be fleeting and that the party should use it to help as many families as possible. "The biggest risk is that the overall package shrinks down because policymakers aren't willing to raise revenues, close the tax gap, and get savings out of drug companies, all of which are enormously popular with the American people," Sharon Parrott, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told me.
Congressional Democrats are leaning toward significant tax increases on the wealthy, though not as large as Biden favors, The Times reports. Corporate lobbyists are fighting back.
THE LATEST NEWS
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ARTS AND IDEAS
A guide to the Theranos trial
Opening statements are set to begin today in the trial of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the disgraced biotech company Theranos. Once the darling of Silicon Valley, Holmes faces fraud charges and up to 20 years in prison. Here's what you need to know before the trial.
Holmes dropped out of Stanford at 19 to launch Theranos. By the time she was 31, Forbes had listed her as the youngest self-made female billionaire and her face was plastered on magazine covers (including our own). But Theranos's blood-testing technology didn't work as advertised, and it all came crashing down after a series of Wall Street Journal reports in 2015 and 2016 detailed the company's deceptions.
Her story is an extreme version of the "fake it till you make it" culture in Silicon Valley, The Times's Erin Griffith has written, where companies often over-promise to generate interest from investors.
For more: John Carreyrou, the former Journal reporter who broke the story, is hosting a podcast about the trial, while ABC's "The Dropout," another popular podcast, explores how Theranos fell apart. If you prefer a visual medium, HBO has a documentary on the scandal. — Matthew Cullen, a Morning contributor