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The real message of Biden’s budget

The president is picking a fight with Republicans on their own turf — fiscal responsibility and defense spending.

Joe Biden speaking at a lectern with a field behind him.
President Joe Biden campaigned on climate.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
Rachel M. Cohen is a senior reporter for Vox covering social policy. She focuses on housing, schools, labor, criminal justice, and abortion rights, and has been reporting on these issues for more than a decade.

A lot is squeezed into President Joe Biden’s new 182-page budget proposal, which the president describes as “a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America in a fiscally responsible way.”

Congress is unlikely to pass all, or even most, of the $6.88 trillion budget as written. Still, presidential budgets are important: They tell lawmakers and voters about an administration’s political priorities. And even though Congress often simply ignores major portions of the request, the president’s budget can still serve as a starting point for legislative talks. Last year, the White House’s priorities for an infrastructure deal influenced the final package Congress ultimately passed.

This year, as Democrats no longer have control of Congress, the resulting budget document reflects both political pragmatism and political ambition. It also gives the clearest glimpse yet into how the White House plans to position itself in the upcoming fights around the debt ceiling and the 2024 reelection campaign. Biden is embracing the rhetoric of fiscal responsibility and national security, domains that have historically been Republicans’ turf. But he is doing so while rejecting any calls to roll back the welfare state. Instead, the budget lays the groundwork to expand it.

In addition to calls for increased military spending and new investments in the social safety net, the Biden budget aims to protect programs like Medicare and Social Security, largely by promoting new taxes on corporations and the richest Americans.

Perhaps the clearest way to understand this new budget is to compare it to Biden’s first two.

Five months after his inauguration, Biden proposed dramatic increases in federal spending, including a 16 percent increase in non-military spending for priorities like public health, preschool, education, and fighting climate change. The administration argued that the low interest rates at the time presented an opportunity to make big investments in the country. With Democratic control over both chambers of Congress, Biden’s first budget reflected a confidence that all members of his party would ultimately fall in line with his broadly ambitious social agenda — a miscalculation that became clear when Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema raised objections.

The following year, when Biden released his budget, he did so in a very different political climate. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was underway, the Biden administration had failed to pass its ambitious Build Back Better agenda, and gas and grocery prices were on the rise. Voters were expressing concerns in polls about crime and inflation, and Sen. Manchin — the key Democratic holdout to Build Back Better in the Senate — had been voicing concerns for months about the federal deficit. Republicans, meanwhile, were blasting the Democrats’ pandemic spending for fueling higher prices.

In a nod to Republicans and fiscal moderates like Manchin, Biden’s second budget made a clear pivot toward security and economics. The second White House budget included significant increases in military spending, new proposals focused on reducing the federal deficit, and far less of an emphasis on the big social programs his administration failed to enact in 2021. There was more focus on “bipartisan unity” investments, like tackling the opioid crisis and health care for military veterans.

Biden called for shrinking the government’s debt by $1 trillion over 10 years, largely through imposing higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, including a “Billionaire Minimum Income Tax” on Americans with assets worth more than $100 million. The administration also tried to take credit for the deficit contracting in 2021, which was technically true, though experts say that had more to do with pandemic stimulus spending leveling off.

This year, in his third year in office and staring down an impending fight over the debt ceiling as well as a likely reelection campaign, the Biden administration has recommitted to that focus, now calling to trim the federal debt by nearly $3 trillion (while increasing Pentagon spending).

The White House is also staking out a strong defense of protecting Medicare and Social Security, entitlement programs that budget experts say are straining federal purse strings, and Republicans have openly discussed cutting. One new tax proposal on top earners would go toward funding Medicare, as would new proposals on negotiating drug costs.

The White House knows it’s at a disadvantage in voters’ minds when it comes to the economy. Polls typically show voters trust Republicans more on economic issues. But Medicare and Social Security are both extremely popular with voters, as are higher taxes on the rich and wealthy.

On social spending, the White House is sticking with key Democratic priorities, including a restoration of the expanded child tax credit, an expansion of free school meals, paid family leave, new spending on high-poverty schools, child care, and universal preschool for 4-year olds. (In earlier budgets, the White House called for funding of universal preschool for 3-year-olds too, but said it wanted a more targeted approach this year.)

While these are unlikely to pass this year with a Republican-controlled House, it signals what Biden will likely campaign on, should he run for reelection as he’s expected to.

The budget shows an administration gearing up for a series of fights and previews their strategy for winning them: the White House is trying to position Democrats as the more fiscally responsible party, with priorities that match the public’s.

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