Twenty five years ago, Bill Clinton, a Democratic president, stood in front of Congress and famously/infamously declared that “the era of big government is over.”
This week, Joe Biden, a Democratic president, traveled to Pittsburgh to declare that the era of big government is back — with a vengeance.
OK, so Biden didn’t say exactly those words. But he did unveil a $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure bill that he called a “once-in-a-generation investment in America, unlike anything we’ve seen or done since we built the Interstate Highway System and the Space Race decades ago.”
Which is right! Biden’s infrastructure plan proposes a massive outlay of federal resources — funded, at least in part, by a hike in the corporate tax rate. But that $2 trillion plan doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It comes less than a month after Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package aimed at helping the country bounce back from the economic devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The era of big government is back with a vengeance
Taken together, that almost $4 trillion in either real or proposed government spending put forward by Biden in the space of a month. That is a remarkable thing to ponder — and evidence that Biden’s presidency, if he can manage to shepherd the infrastructure plane to passage, will signal the triumphant return of the government (and government spending) into peoples’ lives.
Biden’s spending proposals, in fact, are rightly understood as a bookend to the time of shrinking government that Clinton touted more than two decades ago. And Biden’s embrace of a robust federal government spending trillions is also evidence of just how far the country has moved the the days of austerity championed by Clinton.
Hop in the time machine — come on, it’s fun! — and go back to January 1996, when Bill Clinton, in his State of the Union speech, proclaimed that the era of big government was over.
Clinton, in that speech, was positioning himself for his reelection bid. He had watched as Republicans two years earlier had seized control of the House majority for the first time in four decades by running on the “Contract with America,” — a campaign document rife with promises of balancing the federal budget and delivering tax cuts to Americans. And Clinton wanted to make sue the country knew he wasn’t the free-spending, big government liberal that he knew Republicans would seek to cast him as in the 1996 campaign.
Consider what he said just before the “era of big government is over” line:
“We know big government does not have all the answers. We know there’s not a program for every problem. We have worked to give the American people a smaller, less bureaucratic government in Washington. And we have to give the American people one that lives within its means.”
That is literally a line that any leading Republican in the 2010 edition of the GOP could have uttered.
Clinton knew that people were sick of the federal government and wanted it out of their lives. Things were going well in the country — the economy had begun to hum after the struggles of the early 1990s with unemployment dropping, low interest rates and low inflation. People wanted the government to stay out of their business, to leave them alone and let them prosper.
And so Clinton gave them just that. And they re-elected him — overwhelmingly.
Now, hop back into the time machine and set the date for yesterday: March 31, 2021.
America has spent the past year battling the worst pandemic to hit the country since the Spanish influenza in the early part of the 20th century. The economy has been devastated, with the unemployment rate surging to almost 15% in the teeth of the Covid-19 shutdowns. And while the economy appears to be recovering as the number of vaccinated Americans rises, the data still suggests that the effects of the pandemic continue to linger. One example: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.2 million people who have dropped out of the labor force were prevented from looking for a new job due to the pandemic in February.
Moments of crisis tend to remind people why the federal government exists — and how it can do some things (like coordinate a nationwide vaccination program) that no other entity in public life can. And the last year has been nothing but an ever-worsening series of crises.
Consider this. In January 1996, almost 6 in 10 Americans said the government was “trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses,” in Gallup polling. Just 1 in 3 (35%) said the government should be doing more. In August 2020, just 4 in 10 Americans (41%) said the government was trying to do too much while 54% wanted it to do more. It marked the first time since October 2001 where the percentage of people wanting the government to do more had eclipsed the percentage who wan ted it to do less. (That October 2001 number came in direct response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.)
We are in a moment in which the Covid-19 virus has exposed our collective fragility — whether it be our own health (physical and mental) or the state of the economy. Many of us have never felt more at sea and uneasy — unsure that all of the things that we assumed to be true about our lives pre-pandemic will still be true post-pandemic.
Biden is answering those fears with the federal government. He is offering up trillions in spending to ease the transition back into “normal” life for the country. The question he — and we — face is this: Was Mae West right? Is too much of a good thing wonderful?