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Biden’s first budget proposal, explained in 600 words

Biden’s first budget proposal amounts to an embrace of bigger government.

President Joe Biden speaks at the Oval Office in the White House on January 28, 2021.
President Joe Biden speaks at the Oval Office in the White House on January 28, 2021.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Joe Biden’s first budget proposal, unveiled Friday, is grounded in a clear vision: The government can — and should — do much more to solve the many problems facing the country.

The Biden administration presented the $1.5 trillion proposal as intending to first and foremost address what it has long referred to as the “compounding crises” facing the US: the Covid-19 pandemic, a battered economy, systemic racism, and climate change. But the administration also says it wants to push ahead of these issues — to, as it has said in the past, “build back better.”

To do this, Biden’s budget request calls for increasing non-defense discretionary funding by 16 percent over the previous year.

That funding would go to a long, diverse list of federal programs:

  • Funding for domestic manufacturing, mass transit, and job training
  • Money for schools in high-poverty areas, early child care and preschool, and housing vouchers
  • New investments in public health, to help prepare the country for future pandemics but also tackle problems like gun violence and the opioid epidemic
  • A slew of measures to fight climate change, from clean energy projects to more research
  • And across all these areas, the budget proposal vows to commit to closing racial inequities

One potential disappointment for progressives: The proposal calls for a 1.7 percent increase in defense spending. That’s not as large as the previous projected increase was, but some progressives would like to see this spending reduced. The administration, for its part, argues that at least it’s putting far fewer resources into defense spending than other kinds of spending — 1.7 percent is less than 16 percent.

Still, the overall document is a significant win for progressives, amounting to a clear rejection of the days in which even Democrats thought smaller on government spending.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton declared in his State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over.” Clinton would go on to slash federal spending, reforming welfare programs and ultimately balancing the budget.

Nearly a decade and a half later, President Barack Obama wasn’t as concerned with federal spending as his Democratic predecessor was. But he still sometimes succumbed to the austerity politics of the day to try to build bipartisan support for his policies. Progressive economists now widely agree the stimulus package passed in response to the Great Recession was much too small. In negotiations with Republicans about raising limits on the federal debt, the Obama administration agreed to spending caps that cut and limited the level of government spending.

The Biden administration is outright rejecting these politics. Officials called the spending caps “overly restrictive.” The budget proposal overall is a largely tacit and sometimes explicit criticism of the past few decades of public disinvestment in public services — arguing that failures to put more money toward pandemic preparedness, clean energy technologies, and programs to help the poor and disadvantaged have helped lead the US to its current crises.

Office of Management and Budget acting director Shalanda Young gave a relevant example in her letter to Congress about the budget proposal: “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 question now is if Congress agrees with Biden’s vision. On budget issues, lawmakers on the Hill often go their own way, even if they’re part of the president’s political party.

But the budget proposal still provides a detailed look into Biden’s vision for America. The message is clear: The era of bigger government is back.

For more on Biden’s budget, read my explainer at Vox.