Huge Dems need Biden to make huge pivot

With help from Joanne Kenen

BILL OF SALE — In his speech Wednesday night, President Joe Biden is expected to put specifics on his attempt at a historic revamping of the social safety net the likes of which hasn’t been pursued since the days of LBJ.

He’s promoting it as an infrastructure bill. But some Democrats want a different sales pitch.

A new memo obtained exclusively by Nightly from the top Democratic think tank, the Center for American Progress, makes the case that Biden’s proposed American Families Plan should be presented as the ultimate economic stimulus: a once-in-a-century chance to spur massive productive growth among America’s workforce. That argument could, the think tank proposes, fundamentally restructure American politics.

“Biden’s economic agenda and the ‘Biden Boom’ that he is ushering in are an opportunity to fundamentally shift American political dynamics for a generation,” Jesse Lee, vice president of communications for CAP Action, said to Nightly. “For decades Republicans have been viewed as stronger on ‘economic growth’ in the abstract, while Democrats have been stronger on which party is looking out for you. Biden can now take both mantles.”

That may seem like an outlandish goal given the historic advantages Republicans have enjoyed on the economy, which remained one of Trump’s few polling bright spots even during the pandemic.

But in 23 pages of wonkish prose, the memo diagrams the play Biden could make. It notes that two decades of worsening income and wealth inequality — exacerbated by corporate greed, compliant lawmakers, the gig economy and the pandemic — have diminished productive capacity. To fix it, the authors call for a variety of reforms: an expansion of social insurance spending; enhancement of anti-discrimination legislation; and the construction of a care infrastructure that includes things like parental leave, permanent paid family and medical leave programs, and support for child care centers.

President Joe Biden speaks about updated CDC mask guidance on the North Lawn of the White House.

President Joe Biden speaks about updated CDC mask guidance on the North Lawn of the White House.
| Getty Images

These proposals are expected to be bundled and embraced as a package by Biden Wednesday night. But what makes the CAP memo interesting is its framework. Rather than talking about these changes as correctives to societal inequities on matters of race and gender, it promotes them as ways to make the workforce more stable and productive.

Parental leave, the memo suggests, isn’t just about helping frazzled moms and dads. It’s about liberating them financially and emotionally to become better workers and consumers. Investment in child care isn’t just about ensuring a level playing field; it’s about allowing parents to remain at their jobs so they can burn through their much larger disposable incomes.

For decades the liberal economic establishment has embraced these arguments. But in Washington they were often overshadowed by other arguments, often deficit and debt concerns that sometimes bordered on hysteria. When Barack Obama pursued health care reform, for example, it was framed not just as a way to give flexibility and certainty to workers who worried about changing jobs or starting a new business without employer-based coverage. It was, as recounted in Jonathan Cohn’s “The Ten Year War”, sold as a way to cut the deficit by reducing costs and stamping out inefficiencies.

That argument helped lead to the first major expansion of healthcare since the Great Society. But the CAP memo and other leading Democratic thinkers make the case for a new philosophical approach.

“No question that Biden’s proposals will promote productivity,” said Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s former Labor secretary and one of the foremost advocates for care economy investments. “American workers would become more productive if they had child and elder care, as well as paid family leave, because these programs would allow more workers to take full-time jobs.”

With 24 hours to go, we know little about what will be in Biden’s speech, though the rough outlines suggest he will push for expanding the child tax allowance, subsidies for child care, tuition-free community college, funding for universal pre-K, and paid family leave.

“The new proposals from Biden are trying to fill the gap in the safety net that would allow people to get back to work,” said Austan Goolsbee, Obama’s former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. “It’s back on the front table of the store now because events have put it there in the same way the financial crisis really ended the debate inside the Democratic party about financial deregulation. This is important stuff and it needs to be done.”

The toughest part comes once the speech is over. Biden and congressional Democrats need to figure out how to pay for it. They need to cobble together the votes to pass it. And they need to placate economists who argue that they’re taking real risks; that the economy would run way too hot, that the result wouldn’t just be better jobs but massive inflation.

Yet those economists have, so far, been relatively muted. The consensus appears to be there for Biden to embrace what CAP has outlined — and then fight like hell to sell it.

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IT’S A SMALL BIDENWORLD AFTER ALL — When Biden sat in his first Oval Office briefing to discuss the earliest acts of his presidency — impending executive actions — he brought only five people into the room, Natasha Korecki and Daniel Lippman write.

The five: Mike Donilon, Steve Ricchetti, Bruce Reed, Ron Klain and Stef Feldman. Each had been close to Biden for at minimum, a decade. Three of them served, at different points, as his chief of staff.

That lifers would be with Biden in the first moment of his presidency was not a surprise. That so few of them were there was a sign of things to come.

Biden’s White House is a tight ship defined by insularity, rival power centers and top down, micro-management, interviews with nearly two dozen people across the administration, including senior White House officials, reveal. The result is a unit that doesn’t leak (at least not that often) and that stays on script (most of the time). But it is also one where there is competition to show proximity to the boss and occasional difficulty in moving agenda items along in a timely manner.

Some aides complain Biden is kept in too much of a bubble, one where few people can get his ear outside of a cadre of loyalists he’s cultivated for decades. Others concede that the heavy-handedness is mucking up the works.

Hiring remains stubbornly sluggish across the board, frustrating those in the administration. That’s in part because in even some of the lowest-level hiring decisions, high-ranking Biden appointees weigh in. The top-down management style has sometimes muddled efficiency, with aides complaining that the upper echelons of power demand the most basic of decisions go through them, including advance team communications.

By and large, however, it is working. Biden has befuddled critics and pleased progressives. He’s taken myriad actions, big and small, using his executive orders, his bully pulpit and Congress. He’s done it in a way so drama-free it couldn’t be more of the antithesis of his predecessor. There’s little infighting or even signs of internal disagreement.

HOW TO AVOID A CURSE — Summers are where a White House’s carefully laid plans go to die. George W. Bush was on vacation when one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history hit. Donald Trump faced back-to-back shootings in Texas and Ohio that left more than 30 people dead in less than 24 hours. And for Barack Obama, the pitfalls of the summer became a running gag inside the West Wing, from hostile town halls in 2009, to a lingering oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, to a debt ceiling crisis in 2011, to a confrontation with Syria over chemical weapons use in 2013, to the riots in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014.

Biden has ambitious plans for his next 100 days in office, hoping to muscle through a pair of historic spending packages — but only if the summer curse doesn’t derail him, White House correspondent Anita Kumar writes.

“You need to get as many big things done as quickly as possible in the first year before you get overtaken by events,” said Ben LaBolt, a former Obama official who is close to the Biden White House. “You can never predict the BP oil spill that might distract some of the administration’s attention and you want to use your momentum as effectively as possible while you still have it and you still set the terms of the agenda.”

— CDC: Vaccinated Americans can go maskless in many situations: Fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors when in small groups with other fully vaccinated friends and family, and in some circumstances can go maskless with unvaccinated people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said today.

— Sullivan meets with Israeli counterpart after Kerry kerfuffle: U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan met in person today with his Israeli counterpart during ongoing tensions between the United States and Israel over how to deal with Iran. Republican lawmakers have been blasting Biden’s international climate envoy, John Kerry, over allegations that he inappropriately told a senior Iranian official that Israel had struck against Iranian interests in Syria at least 200 times. Kerry denies the conversation happened.

— Biden CFPB pick urged to fix ‘racist policies’ at agency: Rohit Chopra, Biden’s nominee to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, told lawmakers last month that racial inequality is “reinforced and exacerbated” by workplace racism. Now, complaints of pay discrimination may be one of the first big challenges he addresses at his own agency.

— DHS launches enforcement operation targeting smugglers: The Biden administration announced a stepped-up enforcement initiative targeting smuggling operations as part of its response to a record number of migrants arriving at the nation’s southern border. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said federal officials are targeting transnational criminal organizations and their members by going after their ability to travel, trade and access financial assets within the U.S.

— Biden picks union official as ‘Buy American’ enforcer: Biden announced today he was appointing Celeste Drake, one of the labor community’s most experienced trade specialists, as the first “Made in America” director, a position within the White House budget office. Biden created the post in late January, when he signed an executive order aimed at toughening requirements for federal agencies to “Buy American.”

NOT CARING FOR THE SHARING — China and Russia are pushing back on efforts led by the EU for increased cooperation with the World Health Organization during public health crises.

In a draft resolution on WHO reform obtained today by POLITICO, both China and Russia call for several deletions and amendments relating to how countries share information during health emergencies and what evidence should be used in a report on the pandemic response. China continues to face accusations of withholding data from the WHO’s investigation into the origins of the pandemic.

The draft document, dated April 20, will be presented to the World Health Assembly in May after it’s finalized — so these edits may or may not be included in the end. POLITICO previously reported on the EU’s unedited resolution.

The document calls for the creation of a working group that would focus on strengthening the WHO’s preparedness and response to health emergencies. This working group would review the ongoing investigations into the international response to the pandemic and report back to the 2022 World Health Assembly.


The number of designated survivors for Biden’s first joint address to Congress Wednesday night, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said today. Typically, presidents designate a top official to camp out in a secure location in the case of a disaster that kills the president and Cabinet officials. But during the coronavirus pandemic, attendance for Biden’s speech will be limited to 200 lawmakers, Biden administration officials and staff.

JUST KEEP SWIMMING — Health care editor at large Joanne Kenen emails Nightly:

I share my pandemic work space with a very, very old goldfish. How old, I don’t recall. His (or her) name is either Guppy or Gefilte. I don’t recall that either, but all of our goldfish are named Guppy or Gefilte. It’s either a family joke, or a shocking lack of imagination.

Family allergies limit our pet options. There was a basset hound named Biscuit, but he flunked obedience school and we gave him to a family with a farm. That’s not a euphemism. We really gave him to a family with a farm and a soft spot for dumb basset hounds.

We had a rabbit briefly. We tried guinea pigs and hamsters, but the allergist disapproved. I was not going to allow a snake in the house — although I did win Mom points for sheltering Hissy, the third grade snake, for one week one summer.

That left us with goldfish. The 25-cent kind you get from the pet store around the corner, knowing they don’t live long but are sort of pretty while they last.

The first few died fast. Then I got good at taking care of goldfish. Ridiculously good. Our Guppies and Gefiltes (and we usually had two at a time) lived for years and years.

The most recent Guppy — or maybe Gefilte — died a year or so ago. That left me with one fish who is so big now that I can sometimes hear him circling his tank, alone, as I work at his side.

In this year of isolation, I grew attached to Guppy (or Gefilte). He isn’t pretty anymore. With his bulging old eyes and missing scales, he’s sort of ugly. I find myself wondering what he thinks, if he recognizes the hand that feeds him after all these years, if the commotion when I change his water makes him anxious. The gurgling tank has become soothing pandemic white noise for me, and, I sometimes imagine, for him.

When my husband jokes about getting rid of the goldfish (“Maybe we can drown him”), I glare. And even though now, recognizing his age, I order only three months of filters at a time, I’ll miss the gurgle when Guppy — or Gefilte — is gone. He’s become my faithful, ever present coronavirus companion. Each morning I come downstairs, make coffee — and then anxiously check to make sure he’s still alive.

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