For Joe Biden, it’s economic crisis, version 2.0. The last time he came to work at the White House, amid the Great Recession, the new Vice President spearheaded the Obama Administration’s $787 billion stimulus package, which some Democrats criticized as insufficient. Fast-forward a decade and President-elect Biden is again responsible for steering the country out of a downturn--only this time, experts and advisers say, the vision is much more ambitious. Even excluding COVID-19 relief, his campaign-trail promises would increase national debt by roughly $5.6 trillion, according to the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
There’s just one problem: Congress. Even if Democrats win both Georgia Senate seats in a January runoff, the Senate would still likely be split 50-50; if they lose, they’ll face a Republican majority. Either way, the likelihood of Biden’s successfully pushing through a wide-reaching stimulus early next year is now slim, says Mark Zandi, the chief economist of Moody’s Analytics. But, he adds, there’s still hope for a $1 trillion-to-$1.5 trillion economic recovery bill–and no matter the dollar figure, Biden’s vision would represent a major shift in strategy.
Take COVID-19 relief. While President Trump signed a series of bills amounting to roughly $3 trillion in federal spending, those efforts revised the tax code in such a way that the largest corporations and the richest Americans ended up as the biggest beneficiaries. From March 18 to Oct. 13, the wealth of 644 U.S. billionaires jumped from nearly $3 trillion to $4 trillion–a 32% increase–according to two progressive groups, Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies. Biden, in contrast, has promised an economic agenda that focuses more narrowly on public investment. For example, the President-elect has proposed creating a “Public Health Jobs Corps” that would employ roughly 100,000 people to assist with COVID-19 contact tracing nationwide.
That idea is emblematic of Biden’s approach. He has also championed a $775 billion program underwriting the cost of childcare and eldercare for American families and backs a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that would overhaul U.S. roads, bridges, trains and broadband systems while creating millions of jobs. The Biden Administration is also expected to push Congress to extend the $600 in expanded unemployment that expired at the end of July and to back an influx of federal cash to state and local governments, which have been forced by the economic collapse to slash programs benefiting American families, experts say. Colorado, for example, has increased Medicaid co-pays; California reduced firefighter pay by 7.5%; and Georgia slashed K-12 public school budgets by nearly $1 billion. Data suggests that Congress’s failure in 2008 to sufficiently bolster state governments delayed the economic recovery by four years, says Heidi Shierholz, a senior economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute and a former Labor Department economist.
In her capacity as the head of the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank, Felicia Wong compares Biden’s vision to FDR’s New Deal. “We haven’t seen that commitment to public investment in new kinds of industries, new kinds of economic sectors and job creation since Roosevelt,” says Wong, who also serves as an adviser on Biden’s transition board.
Unsurprisingly, that kind of large federal outlay makes some Republicans nervous. That money has to come out of somebody’s taxes, says Veronique de Rugy of George Mason University. And if the answer is taxing big businesses, it may hurt the little guy too. “A big chunk of the burden of the corporate income tax is shouldered by workers in the form of lower wages,” she says.
But even without GOP support in the Senate, Biden can move the needle on his own. He could, for instance, reintroduce a version of Trump’s eviction moratorium, which is set to expire in December, threatening to leave millions of Americans homeless in the dead of winter. Some Democrats, including Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, are also lobbying Biden to use the powers they say are vested in the Higher Education Act to forgive up to $50,000 in student debt per person.
It’s unlikely, of course, that any big moves will happen on day one. Legislation, negotiation and reconciliation take time. But Zandi, the Moody’s economist, says he’s optimistic that Senate Republicans will be willing to play ball next year on at least some stimulus spending, if only because the current economic conditions–high unemployment, low inflation and near zero interest rates–are right. What Biden will be able to do when he comes to the plate remains to be seen.
This appears in the November 23, 2020 issue of TIME.