President Biden signed a $1.9 trillion spending bill, which is being described as both “COVID relief” and “stimulus” legislation. It isn’t really either one: Much of it has little to do with COVID, and the case that it would rescue a depressed economy is not strong. Since the bill narrowly passed the Senate, a third purpose for it has come to the fore. Having sold the legislation as a necessary response to a public-health and economic crisis, its fans are now saying that its great contribution to the commonweal is bringing back the New Deal. Supposedly, its popularity will buoy Democrats in the midterms and its example will re-legitimate big government. The New York Times reports that there has been “a realignment of economic, political and social forces, some decades in the making and others accelerated by the pandemic, that enabled a rapid advance in progressive priorities.”
What is really happening is that progressives are building a — federally funded, over-budget — castle in the air. If Biden wants to spend even larger sums on infrastructure in future legislation, he will not have the helpful context of his first weeks in office and a continuing pandemic. And even in this bill, they were unable to secure an increase in the minimum wage, losing the votes of eight Senate Democrats and all the Republicans. (They can’t blame the filibuster for that.) Its biggest-ticket items, money for state and local governments and checks to households, will do little to expand the federal government on a permanent basis.
Meanwhile, polls continue to suggest that most Americans do not believe the federal government should grow larger and do not trust its competence. These are generalities, of course, and have in the past been compatible with public support for specific government interventions. But there is not much evidence the public is part of any grand “realignment.”
It may well turn out that voters will feel well-disposed toward the ruling Democrats over the next two years as we emerge from COVID-19. The Democrats are making a dubious bet, though, if they believe voters will be more inclined to credit them for any happy conditions because of this legislation. CNN found 61 percent support for it, yes. But CNN found 54 percent support for President Obama’s stimulus in February 2009. The Democrats still lost the House in the next election.