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Commentary Coronavirus Government

Biden’s first misstep was the COVID-19 stimulus

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The Georgia runoffs were a must-win for President-elect Joe Biden. 

In a speech in Atlanta the day before the Jan. 5 election, Biden spoke with passion, noting that “unlike any time in (his) career one state, one state (could) chart the course not just for the next four years but the next generation.” 

Despite appearing to be hyperbole, Biden was quite correct. The November 2020 election was a defeat for the Republican Party’s ambitions of retaining the Oval Office, but aside from the executive, control over the U.S. Senate was still in question.

Biden’s keynote promise in the Atlanta speech was a $2,000 stimulus check. If the people of Georgia elected Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock to the Senate, “their election will put an end to the block in Washington,” Biden proclaimed. The “$2,000 stimulus check (would) go out the door immediately.” It was a powerful promise made in hopes of swinging an important election.

The Democrats won. Incumbent Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler lost what once would have been considered near-guaranteed conservative seats.

The new president was inaugurated. The nation’s 117th Congress was in session. Key members of the Cabinet were approved. It was time for the Biden administration to make good on its promises of an immediate release of stimulus checks.

The first draft of his administration’s COVID-19 stimulus bill was announced days before he took the oath of office. The price tag comes in at $1.9 trillion. Under normal circumstances this one piece of legislation would be considered astronomical. But in the middle of the pandemic, this cost is around what was reasonably expected.

As such, my first reaction to reading the proposed bill was that it seemed reasonable. It included $160 billion for vaccine rollout, a needed and appropriate increase in unemployment benefits, and a continuation of an eviction moratorium. It would be hard to find any opposition bill so far. But then, the revelation: there had been some edits to the stimulus checks as advertised.

The checks, promised at $2,000 to be released immediately, decreased to $1,400 and were no longer to be released from the get-go but more likely sometime in March. 

The issue is that the president won the important southern runoffs, in my estimation, on the promise of these checks. Polls showed that 78% of likely voters supported $2,000 checks as an issue going into the Georgia elections. 

With the history of the state as a conservative stronghold,  Democrats needed to convince on-the-fence conservatives with policies and promises to secure their power in the Senate. 

In Atlanta, just hours before the runoffs, Biden proclaimed: “$2,000 isn’t some abstract debate. … You need the money, you need the help, and you need it now.” Biden of the past was right, but the rhetoric of the past did not become action in the present.

A clean bill that only included $2,000 checks right away would have passed in the U.S. Senate.  With 50 Democrats in the senate and Vice President Harris to break a possible tie, the bill would have passed under budget reconciliation — where only a majority is needed to call a final vote on a bill. 

Even so, given that many prominent Republicans voiced support for direct payments, such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida as well as Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Josh Hawley of Missouri, it is likely that some Republicans would have sided with President Biden on stimulus checks and the president would, as his first legislative act, have a bipartisan win, passed in the halls of a Capitol that had just been desecrated by division

It was a guaranteed victory lap, but instead, a political debate was preferred. Contentiousness was now guaranteed instead of much-needed unity.

In Washington, a new administration is in place, but it seems that the American people have been delivered more of the same. Politics over promises, strategy over empathy, and division over unity. The Capitol was ransacked, a former president is currently on trial, and the people are in crisis; President Biden’s first step could have set a tone of strength and greatness. But, at the end of the day, it will go down as a misstep.

Cover image by AzamKamolov from Pixabay.

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Ryan James Solis

Ryan James Solis of El Paso is a junior at Harvard College on a gap year from studying history and economics. He is a Gates, Jack Kent Cooke, and Coca-Cola scholar.

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