Biden's Opening Bid

[ Posted Thursday, March 9th, 2023 – 17:14 UTC ]

President Joe Biden released his third budget proposal today. It is an opening bid which both lays out Biden's negotiating position in the upcoming showdown with congressional Republicans. But it also unveils a policy blueprint for Biden's yet-to-be-announced re-election campaign. Biden used his budget to showcase his unfinished agenda -- much of which was included in his earlier "Build Back Better" proposal -- and indicate where his political priorities lie. It is a promise to the American people what Biden will be fighting for, whether for the next two years or the next six.

When it comes to the question of what government should do for the people, the two major political parties have a major difference of opinion that is seldom going to be laid out in such drastic contrast as it will this year. Biden's plan would increase taxes on corporations and those making over $400,000 a year and use the resulting revenue to both fund new initiatives as well as reduce the deficit by almost three trillion dollars over the next decade. This is a direct challenge to Republicans, who have made deficit-cutting the centerpiece of their own agenda for this year's budget. Biden is daring them: "You want to cut the deficit? Well, my opening bid is $2.9 trillion... what do you say to that?"

Of course, Republicans' other longstanding priority is to cut taxes as much as possible -- and to funnel the biggest tax cuts to the wealthiest individuals and corporations. So they're not going to agree to raising any taxes, at least not in their initial proposal. But Biden is saying: "We can cut the deficit without slashing spending," which leaves the Republicans to make the counterargument: "We simply cannot raise taxes on billionaires, instead we are going to gut Medicare and food assistance." And a whole lot of other programs as well, if they truly are serious about balancing the federal budget within 10 years. So to the public the choice will be to raise taxes on the uber-wealthy and see all sorts of innovative programs enacted versus seeing a whole bunch of federal programs absolutely gutted while keeping taxes low for the billionaires. That's a pretty good political argument for Democrats to make, obviously.

As I wrote yesterday, for the next few months (unless they surprise everyone by moving faster) Biden's budget is going to stand unanswered by a Republican budget blueprint. The House GOP caucus is huddled up trying to find some way to actually achieve their lofty balanced-budget goal without the resulting budget looking too Draconian. Which is going to be tough, if not impossible. As the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee wryly pointed out: "[Republicans'] biggest opponent... is not any Democrat. The biggest opponent they have is math."

The White House is making the same point:

"Congressional Republicans keep saying they want to reduce the deficit. But they have not put out a comprehensive plan showing what they'll cut," White House Office of Management Director Shalanda Young told reporters earlier on Thursday. "Will it be Medicare? Social Security? The Affordable Care Act? Veterans' benefits? We don't know until they put out a plan. We're looking forward to seeing their budget so the American people can compare it to what we're putting out today."

Biden, speaking today (to a Union audience in Pennsylvania) to promote his new budget, was even blunter: "They want to cut taxes for the wealthy and large corporations, and take away the power we just gave Medicare to lower drug prices. If they say they want to cut the deficit but their plans would explode the deficit, how are they going to make the math work? What are they going to cut?"

The math is rather brutal. As the New York Times shows, when you exclude the budgets for Social Security, Medicare, and the Pentagon (three big budget items the Republicans have said they're not going to cut), to achieve a balanced federal budget in 10 years would require cutting everything else the federal government does -- including Medicaid, Obamacare, food assistance, farm subsidies, military retirement, veterans' health and far too many other things to list here -- by a whopping 70 percent. That is the challenge the House Republicans are facing.

Here's how Biden did his math. First, he increases revenues coming in to the federal government:

[President Joe] Biden's budget calls for reducing the deficit by $2.9 trillion over the next 10 years, achieved almost entirely through unprecedented tax hikes on affluent investors, billionaires, companies' stock buybacks, those earning more than $400,000 per year and large corporations. The plan would partially reverse the 2017 [Donald] Trump tax cuts, raising the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent. It also would raise the minimum tax paid by billionaires to 25 percent, restore the top marginal tax rate to 39.6 percent for those earning more than $400,000 per year and raise the capital gains tax rate to 39.6 percent for those earning more than $1 million.

This would bring in a lot of money -- more than the $2.9 trillion Biden sets aside for deficit relief. So what would he spend the rest on?

The White House budget calls for more than $1 trillion in new spending on programs such as Medicaid, child care, prekindergarten, public housing and free community college. It includes an additional $1 trillion in tax credits and breaks aimed at lower- and middle-class Americans, such as reviving the expanded child tax credit that was only approved for one year as part of Biden's 2021 American Rescue Plan. The expiration of that policy -- once viewed as a potential key part of Biden's legacy -- led to a spike in child poverty, though [Senator Joe] Manchin and Republicans argued the higher credits exacerbated inflation.

The document suggests Biden's initial ambitions to pass a generational expansion of government -- similar to that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal or Lyndon Johnson's Great Society -- could return as a key rallying cry for the Democratic Party in 2024.

Biden's budget also contains a specific fix for Medicare funding, which could be in jeopardy within a few years. It did not contain a similar fix for the Social Security trust fund, which is currently more stable and won't face such a crisis for the next decade.

Politically, Joe Biden is obviously relishing the prospect of going on the offense on both his budget priorities and the subject of fiscal responsibility. All his new programs are fully paid for, and he would bring the deficit down by almost three trillion dollars over the next decade. Which makes it very hard for Republicans to attack his plan as being somehow fiscally irresponsible. But Biden decided not to play the game of "who can cut the most?" -- instead he's offering a different way altogether: tax the rich and use the money to do productive things for everyone else.

Republicans are going to have the challenge of trying to convince the American people that we are in the midst of a budgetary crisis of epic proportions and that they are going to save us all with some rather tough love. They'll be taking a meat axe to things like Medicaid and food stamps and all the rest of it, insisting that this is the only truly responsible path forward.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden is going to be insisting that this is just not the case and in fact the government can afford to do even more for people, if we would just make millionaires and billionaires pay a tax rate higher than a firefighter or teacher. I know which side of that argument I'd rather be on. I know which one's going to sound a lot more persuasive, at least outside the confines of Fox News and the rightwing-media echo chamber.

Biden's budget is not going to be embraced by Republicans, even if some acceptable compromise is worked out later in the year. A lot of it obviously won't get done while Republicans hold control of one chamber of Congress. But Biden will -- assuming he does run for re-election -- be making his argument to the American people:

"See? This is what Democrats want to get done. This is what we could do if we win back the House. This is why you should vote for me and the Democratic Party. Because we don't have to take a machete to the federal budget -- there's another way, a better way. We can improve the lives of every American and bring the deficit down. We have better ideas and a plan for how to achieve them. They just have a plan to go scorched-earth on Medicaid and veterans' healthcare and a whole lot of other things the American people rely on -- all so billionaires can continue to pay a lower tax rate than most hardworking Americans do."

As I said, that's a pretty good argument to be making. And Biden has shown he is eager to start making it. His budget proposal is not just an outline for the upcoming negotiations with House Republicans, it is also his opening bid for his re-election campaign.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


One Comment on “Biden's Opening Bid”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    That is actually a great argument to be making on the stump and, if I may say, a pretty easy one to make, too. Even without my favourite phrase. :)

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