Biden’s push for big government solutions is popular now — but it could backfire

Daniel A. Cox May 5, 2021

FiveThirtyEight

Just weeks after the passage of President Biden’s massive $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package, he introduced two more sweeping pieces of legislation: first, a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that would not only repair roads and bridges but also reshape the economy, and second, a $1.8 trillion plan for a federal paid-leave program, universal prekindergarten and more. In all, Biden is proposing a nearly $6 trillion infusion in the economy.

What’s even more remarkable than the price tag is just how popular these proposals are with the public. Biden’s coronavirus stimulus package was well-received from the outset, and there are early signs that his other two bills are broadly popular, too.

We’ve come a long way since President Ronald Reagan urged Americans to be wary of government help and President Bill Clinton pronounced that the “era of big government is over.” In the wake of a once-in-a-generation pandemic that has required sustained national intervention and leadership, Americans may be coming around to the benefits of big government.

A new report from Karlyn Bowman and other colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute reveals record-high support for a larger, more engaged government. The report, which analyzed polling trends from various survey organizations, shows a remarkably consistent uptick in support for more government intervention beginning around the time Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. Gallup polling found a majority (54 percent) of the public in favor of the government’s doing more to solve the country’s problems — a dramatic gain over the past decade and the highest level of support since Gallup first asked the question in 1992. CBS News and Pew Research Center polls revealed a similar upward trend in support of a bigger government that offers more public services, with 52 percent of Americans in favor according to Pew last year.

So, what’s going on here? Americans have long been skeptical of more government intervention, and public trust in government remains historically low. Do Americans really want more government in their lives?

The most obvious explanation is that government support in both economic aid and public health administration has been critical over the past 14 months and Americans broadly approve of how the government has responded. Granted, Trump got poor marks for how he handled the pandemic overall, but his COVID-19 stimulus package was very popular. And Biden has generally gotten high marks, as the U.S. has been more successful than many other countries in distributing vaccines. To date, the government has also disbursed about $372 billion in direct payments to 156 million Americans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the public strongly supports these relief efforts, and while partisan divisions persist, even a solid majority of low-income Republicans are in favor of Biden’s stimulus package.

But there are other possible explanations for why Americans might want more government intervention. Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) have experienced multiple economic traumas, which has left them less well-off than previous generations. Whether measured in terms of homeownershipretirement savings or debt, millennials have accumulated far less wealth on average than baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) when they were the same age. As a result, millennials may be less worried about what the government is taking from them and more interested in what it can do for them. A recent Pew study bears this out. Roughly two-thirds of millennials — and 70 percent of Generation Zers (for this study, those born between 1997 and 2005) — believe government should do more to address societal problems while just under half of baby boomers agree.

Of course, some of what we’re seeing with Americans wanting more government intervention predates the pandemic and may have more to do with how much Republicans have changed their stance on government spending. During Obama’s presidency, Republicans routinely expressed concern over the deficit, as did conservative Democrats. But as the national debt ballooned by $7.8 trillion during Trump’s presidency, few Republicans took a principled stand on the deficit.

In fact, the Trump years witnessed the declining influence of economic libertarians and small-government conservatives in the GOP. Meanwhile, some Republicans even sought to offer their own large-scale spending plans as they’ve argued it’s time for the Republican Party to be the party of working-class Americans. In an editorial last year, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley proposed that Congress “protect every single job” affected by the COVID-19 crisis and “help our businesses rehire every worker who has already lost a job.”

But if deficit spending and mounting debts no longer arouse ire among conservatives and trepidation among the public, that does not mean it never will. Reducing the deficit is not a high public priority, but a new Quinnipiac poll shows that 48 percent of Americans are worried that the Biden administration wants to spend too much money. Meanwhile, some prominent Senate Republicans are poised to take a stand against spending increases by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, and rank-and-file Republicans have already become much more wary of deficit spending since Biden took office.

It’s very possible, then, that our era of more government intervention will be short-lived. That’s in large part because demand for more government intervention is cyclical. Nearly three decades ago, political scientist Christopher Wlezien found that public preferences for spending were inversely related to the overall amount spent. That is, when Congress is spending a lot of money, public support for spending drops, but when spending levels are low, the public wants a more generous government. In other words, what we could be seeing right now, according to Wlezien, is pent-up public demand for government to produce “bread-and-butter” policies that grew out of perceived inactivity during the Trump years.

That means as Biden tries to pass an ambitious agenda to combat racial inequality, tackle climate change and fix a crumbling infrastructure, popular support for an active government may help him — as Wlezien told me, Biden could be “surfing the wave” of public support for government solutions. But in passing those policies, it’s also possible that Biden may undercut public support for government action. After all, many voters like a party until they’re in the business of governing.

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