Updated Sep 24, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden's big bet backfires

Two key dealmakers — Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) — leave a luncheon in the Capitol yesterday. Photo: Kent Nishimura/L.A. Times via Getty Images

President Biden bit off too much, too fast in trying to ram through what would be the largest social expansion in American history, top Democrats privately say.

Why it matters: At the time Biden proposed it, he had his mind set on a transformational accomplishment that would put him in the pantheon of FDR and JFK.

  • Democrats, controlling two branches of government, saw a once-in-a-lifetime opening. In retrospect, some top advisers say this should have been done in smaller chunks.

An outside White House adviser said: "Reality is setting in that you can’t pass a $3.5 trillion package. It’s going to get scaled back. The question is whether it can be done this year."

  • In branding some Democrats wish had started months ago, White House chief of staff Ron Klain said Sept. 15 at the SALT financial conference in New York: "The net cost of Build Back Better is zero."

The $3.5 trillion price tag covers the 10-year cost of Biden's infrastructure plans, plus massive social spending, including pre-K for all 3- and 4- years olds, and two years of tuition-free community college.

  • Biden needs to show lawmakers on the left he's with him on topics like this, when he's being pulled to the right on immigration.
  • The proposal was always an opening bid. The White House points out that the final figure is still being negotiated.

But the big number stuck and is the near-universal way Biden's plans are described.

  • The New York Times' David Leonhardt said on CNN earlier this month that the price "highlights a political weakness of how the Biden administration ... They haven't given anyone any other way of selling the bill because it's sort of such a hodgepodge of different things."

The White House points to polling showing the components of Build Back Better are popular, and emphasizes $3.5 trillion as a "gross investment figure" that'll be paid for through tax increases.

White House spokesman Andrew Bates told us:

"The American public overwhelmingly supports the Build Back Better Act because the through line of all its policies is that they will ensure our economy delivers for middle class families, not just those at the top. The bill's price tag is $0 because it will be paid for by ending failed, special tax giveaways for the richest taxpayers and big corporations, adding nothing to the debt. 17 Nobel Prize winners in economics have affirmed the plan will grow our economy by helping families get ahead while guarding against inflation for the long haul."
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