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What Biden’s first budget proposal tells us about his vision for America

Biden’s first budget proposal embraces bigger government.

President Joe Biden speaks about gun violence at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 8, 2021.
President Joe Biden speaks about gun violence at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 8.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

There’s a consistent theme in President Joe Biden’s first budget proposal, released Friday morning: The federal government can help solve big problems. But to do that, the country needs to reinvest in areas it’s neglected for decades.

The $1.5 trillion discretionary funding request is only a proposal — and not even a complete budget proposal, with a more comprehensive version including mandatory spending and tax changes coming this spring. But it’s an important window into the new administration’s priorities, calling for a boost in domestic spending on issues ranging from education in poor communities to the opioid epidemic to climate change to pandemic preparedness.

In a letter to Congress, the administration pointed to the “four compounding crises of unprecedented scope and scale” the US is currently dealing with: the Covid-19 pandemic, a weakened economy, a reckoning on racism, and global warming. It argued that the federal government, with the right priorities, can not only tackle these crises but “begin building a better, stronger, more secure, more inclusive America.”

To achieve that, the Biden administration proposes boosting non-defense discretionary spending by 16 percent — an attempt to get the country back to historical spending levels. Among the increases are funding boosts to housing vouchers, Title I grants for high-poverty schools, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, programs to help combat the opioid epidemic, and gun violence initiatives.

Whether it’s the economy, a pandemic, violence against women, or clean energy, the budget lays out a worldview in which the Biden administration and the federal government take a direct, hands-on role to solve some of the thorniest problems facing the US — in contrast to Republicans’ small-government philosophy. It’s also an ambitious document by the standard of recent Democratic administrations that, at times, limited their scope to avoid criticisms of “big government” — as seen by former President Bill Clinton’s efforts to balance the federal budget and former President Barack Obama’s attempts to shore up Republican support through a smaller stimulus package and restrained federal spending.

Ultimately, it’s up to Congress to decide how much any of this actually becomes law. Historically, lawmakers on the Hill tend to take their own path on budget issues, picking and choosing which parts of the president’s proposals they want to keep. That’s true even in situations like the current one, where the president’s political party controls Congress.

Still, these kinds of budget requests provide a detailed look at what, exactly, the president and his team want to do — their vision for the country.

In 1996, then-President Clinton famously claimed in his State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over.” Now, Biden is trying to bring at least some of that era back.

What Biden’s budget includes

Biden’s proposal includes a lot of moving pieces, which you can read in full here. But here are some of the major points:

  • Support for more jobs: The budget proposal includes more funding for programs that support manufacturing at home, infrastructure and mass transit projects, and job training programs. There’s also a boost in funding for research and development, from NASA to the Department of Energy, to “help spur innovation across the economy and renew America’s global leadership.”
  • An expanded social safety net: The proposal boosts funding for a range of programs that prop up the country’s poor and disadvantaged, including schools in high-poverty areas, early child care and preschool, Pell Grants for higher education, housing vouchers, and grants to help domestic violence survivors and homeless youth.
  • A bigger investment in public health: The budget proposal calls for more spending on a host of pandemic-related public health initiatives, through the CDC, to build public health capacity, modernize data collection, train new epidemiologists and other experts, and take other steps to “detect, prepare for, and respond to emerging global threats.” The proposal also aims to boost funding on a range of other public health issues, including HIV/AIDS, gun violence, the opioid crisis, and violence against women.
  • Efforts against climate change: The proposal backs a long list of new and increased measures to combat climate change, including energy efficiency in low-income homes and public buildings, electric vehicles and charging stations, clean energy projects, and programs focused around “climate resilience and disaster planning.” It also calls for efforts to clean up pollution, plug abandoned wells and mines, improve water infrastructure, and boost research, development, and innovation in clean energy and the climate.
  • Addressing racial inequality: Across all of these programs, Biden’s proposal emphasizes tackling racial inequities. For example, increases in funding for schools and child care should help communities of color that are disproportionately left behind in the economy. There are also several initiatives that tackle systemic racism directly, like greater funding for minority-owned businesses.
  • A defense spending increase and other foreign policy priorities: The proposal calls for a 1.7 percent increase in defense spending — less than projected by former President Donald Trump’s own budget, but likely to draw the ire of progressives who have long called for a decrease in defense spending in general. The administration also commits to a range of other foreign policy initiatives, including efforts to counter China’s growing influence as well as funding to Central America to address the “root causes” that have driven a flow of migrants north to the US in recent years.

Across the board, Biden’s budget proposal is a largely tacit — and sometimes explicit — criticism of the past few decades’ disinvestment in public services. For example, in her letter to Congress, Office of Management and Budget acting director Shalanda Young called out reduced funding to the CDC in the lead-up to the Covid-19 pandemic: “We know that anticipating, preparing for, and fighting a global pandemic requires a robust public health infrastructure. Yet, going into the COVID-19 pandemic, funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was 10 percent lower than a decade ago, adjusted for inflation.”

The message is very clear: The US is facing a range of unique problems — particularly the four compounding crises that the White House often refers to — and a key reason that these things got so bad to begin with was government neglect. By renewing federal spending and efforts in these areas, the Biden administration hopes to undo the damage done and set the country on a better path moving forward.

A repudiation of austerity — and an embrace of big government solutions

Under the previous Democratic administration, former President Barack Obama and then–Vice President Biden at times embraced austerity politics, trying to land budget deals with Republicans that would tame federal spending and reduce the deficit. When Republicans threatened economic calamity by refusing to raise a limit on the federal government’s debt, the Obama administration even agreed to spending caps that limited how much the federal government could do — a sign of the politics of the time.

Biden clearly repudiates this style of politics, with officials describing the spending caps as “overly restrictive” and the proposal boosting spending across the board. But his budget request goes further than rejecting the politics of the past. It’s also an effort to show that the federal government can play a role in solving major problems.

In comparison, Trump’s budget proposals routinely called for sweeping cuts, particularly to the US’s social safety net. Trump slashed taxes and regulations. He called for repealing Obamacare. At times, Trump resisted acknowledging the problems that the federal government could play a role in solving, from global warming to systemic racism.

This approach culminated in the Covid-19 crisis. The Trump administration refused to take more direct, hands-on approaches to build the country’s testing capacity. It did make a significant investment into research, development, and manufacturing vaccines — but then it refused to do much to help states distribute them. One Trump official even described the idea of supporting states as a “federal invasion” of the states.

This is the contrast that Biden is drawing now. Since he came into office, Biden has been pushing for a bigger government role on a host of issues. That includes the pandemic — the administration has taken measures to increase testing capacity and help states distribute vaccines, for example. But it also includes areas like the economy, climate change, gun violence, child and elderly care, and more research into all these problems and more — all of which have gotten or could get boosts through the $1.9 trillion relief package and $2 trillion infrastructure proposal.

This is the vision that Biden’s initial budget proposal lays out, one in which the federal government takes a more direct approach to directly helping Americans and solving some of the problems that hold them down.

Some of this is political. As one of Biden’s economic advisers told Ezra Klein at the New York Times, “If we don’t show people we’re helping the shit out of them, this country could be back to Trump way too quickly.”

It’s also a reaction to the federal government’s failures in the past few decades. There’s a sense among progressives that many of the country’s current problems, from economic and racial inequality to climate change to the pandemic, were exacerbated or outright caused by public disinvestment. The federal government could have taken stronger action to confront any of these issues decades ago — helping reverse massive wealth gaps, combat global warming before it got so bad, or prepare the country for a pandemic. But it didn’t.

Biden, at least, hopes to do that. His budget proposal is a key example of how he’s getting there.