On Thursday afternoon, President-elect Joe Biden released the details of a $1.9 trillion stimulus/relief bill he plans to propose to Congress. One point nine trillion is a big number—the 2009 stimulus passed under Barack Obama came in around $800 billion—and the bill is laden with evidence of the success the Bernie Sanders wing of the party has had in advocating for direct public spending. It includes:
• Additional stimulus checks of $1,400 per adult and dependent, subject to adjustment in the same ways as previous checks.
• An increased and extended federal unemployment supplement of $400 a week.
• A $15 federal minimum wage.
• A big increase in the child tax credit, as well as the key tweak of making it “refundable,” which means that families under a certain income threshold can use it to pay their tax bill but also get an additional direct check for whatever’s left over after taxes.
As economic legislation goes, this makes Barack Obama look like Herbert Hoover. The plan has still been subject to some sharp criticism because of the first item above—the $1,400 checks. To understand why, here’s a timeline of what happened with the last stimulus bill, which Donald Trump signed Dec. 27:
• The House passed a bill including $600 checks. Democrats would’ve liked more, but $600 was the number that the Republican Senate was expected to accept.
• The Senate passed the $600 version.
• Donald Trump, because he was (already) angry at Mitch McConnell for not supporting his effort to overturn the election, came out of nowhere to demand $2,000 stimulus checks instead. He claimed he wouldn’t sign the bill if the number wasn’t raised.
• Congressional Democrats, and Georgia Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, saw this as a big opportunity to potentially pass a more useful bill while squeezing Republicans. (More money is more popular than less money among everyone except hardcore fiscal conservatives.) Ossoff, Warnock, and figures like Sanders endorsed the higher figure.
• Trump chickened out as always and signed the $600 bill.
• Warnock and Ossoff continued to campaign on “$2,000 checks” until the Jan. 5 special elections even as the $600 payments started to go out.
When Biden announced a $1,400 check, some people thought, That makes sense—it will add up to $2,000. But others thought, Wait, I thought there was going to be a check that literally said $2,000 on it. According to a quick survey of Slate staff and one Slate parent who resides in Georgia, this confusion did not necessarily break down along ideological lines: Some center-leaning individuals thought it was a letdown/screwup, while some who lean left had assumed the next check would be $1,400 all along. Online, though, leftists in particular seized on the gap as evidence that Biden and the Democrats were already betraying the people who got him (and Ossoff and Warnock) elected. Some indicative content:
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also said Thursday night that the new checks should be for $2,000, albeit more politely.
What makes this unlike Democrats-in-disarray moments of the past is it seems like it could be easily resolved. There is an unprecedented consensus inside the party (and outside the party) about ignoring spending-related objections raised by partisan Republicans. Progressive economists and economics writers like Jason Furman and David Dayen have also for the most part applauded Biden’s bill. The president-elect could realign the entire party behind his proposal without creating any obvious new problems by changing it to call for $2,000 checks. And then no one would ever fight online again!