A 100-Day Progress Report: How New Progressivism Is Emerging
April 28, 2021
By Felicia Wong
On January 20, 2021, the nation was ready to transform.
By then, we’d experienced 50 years of neoliberal policymaking that left our economy with less stability, more inequality, and slower growth.
We’d suffered through a year of COVID-19, and an economic and social crisis that most harmed our most vulnerable. We were in a moment of racial reckoning, after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. An estimated 20 million Americans took to the streets to protest racial injustice in the summer of 2020, making the Black Lives Matter movement possibly the biggest in our nation’s history.
And we were just two weeks removed from the insurrection of January 6, an assault on our government and the principles of multiracial democracy.
Now, 100 days later, a once-in-a-generation transformation has begun, and a new progressive worldview is ascendant. Policymakers are starting to understand that we must rebalance power in our economy and our democracy, and that government action—at the right scale and with the right structure—can get us there.
With scale and structure as our guides, let’s examine where the Biden administration has made progress in its first 100 days, and where improvement is needed.
Scale: “We Need to Act Big”
“Every major economist thinks we should be investing in deficit spending in order to generate economic growth,” Biden said shortly before his inauguration. “If we don’t act now, things will get much worse and harder to get out of the hole later. So we have to invest now . . . There’s a dire, dire need to act now.”
“We need to act big,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said a few weeks later.
And they did, with the March passage of the American Rescue Plan—a $1.9 trillion relief package that made vital investments in mass vaccination and public health, offered support to struggling families, and provided funding for revenue-strapped states, localities, and Indigenous territories.
The size of the ARP was both essential and unprecedented, reflecting a paradigm shift in macroeconomic thinking. In 2009, and for much of the decade after, deficit fears were pervasive among President Obama’s top economic advisors. In a December 2009 memo, his economic team recommended that a three-year non-defense-spending freeze was worth doing “both to reduce the deficit and indicate that the Administration is serious about fiscal discipline.” But that kind of political thinking is waning.
Biden’s economic team has internalized the hard-earned lessons of the last decade’s prolonged recovery and needless unemployment. They understand that robust government spending is the most effective way to help the economy reach its potential.
With around 15 million people currently not working, or working less than they would prefer, massive public investment to boost the economy and create jobs is an economic and moral obligation. It’s also overdue, after generations of underinvestment, unmitigated climate change, and unaddressed racial and gender inequities.
That’s the basis for the American Jobs Plan, the $2.3 trillion infrastructure package unveiled earlier this month. But here, the scorecard is more mixed.
The AJP invests significantly more money for *each* of the intertwining crises we face—climate, care, supply chains, and racial and economic inequality—than the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocated in new spending ($357 billion, or about $442 billion in current dollars). This sounds good. But given the magnitude of our current crises, the ARRA is a low bar.
The AJP represents a break from the past. But it still falls short of what we need. Decarbonizing our economy will require $10 trillion over 10 years (some estimate that the amount is closer to $16 trillion). After decades of neglect when it comes to decarbonizing investments, we aren’t blessed with time to course-correct.
One clear shortcoming: In its current form, the AJP is not being debt-financed. Note that we could get a lot closer to $10 trillion with more deficit spending, as Roosevelt has long argued (and as Biden himself advocated earlier this year). Making an investment that will pay itself back through borrowing is basic business practice. Biden should embrace that here.
So on scale, the Biden administration has made progress: The ARP was a major victory, and the AJP is an impressive—though by itself, insufficient—down payment.
Structure: “Transform Those Systems”
Economic outcomes are the product of political institutions, human choices, and rules that structure markets: We at Roosevelt have long known this truth, and in the last 100 days, it has emerged as a governing principle of the Biden administration—which includes many Roosevelt alumni and allies.
“There has been a lot more work done to try to understand what the roots of economic inequality are over the course of the last decade, and openness to thinking about power and power dynamics,” National Economic Council Director Brian Deese told Ezra Klein this month. “If you think across the big systems in our country—the transportation system being one, the power and energy system being another—in order to actually solve climate change, we’re going to have to transform those systems.”
So far, the Biden administration has embraced some of the tools to transform systems, though not in all sectors or in all the ways it could.
Relative to big economic packages of the past, including the ARP, the AJP has structural strengths and addresses systemic sexism and racism directly—particularly in its care work and worker empowerment components. For example, the plan would invest $25 billion to create new childcare facilities and $400 billion for quality, affordable home- or community-based care for the elderly and people with disabilities.
That $400 billion would provide care workers—disproportionately Black and brown women—with higher wages and the ability to unionize. And those federally funded childcare centers, used by parents every day, would produce virtuous feedback loops.
The AJP’s commitment to high-speed broadband for all is additional evidence that, in some sectors, the administration understands how reshaping markets with public power can counter extractive corporate power. For example, the plan “prioritizes support for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives—providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.” It acknowledges outright that subsidies do not suffice in distorted markets. That kind of approach should translate across sectors.
In addition to the bills it has signed and proposed, the Biden administration has made strides in centering racial and gender equity, community engagement, and worker power in its policy and personnel choices.
As Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the nation’s first Native American cabinet secretary, told Grist, “My family, my grandparents, my ancestors: They lived with decisions that were made by this department and by the federal government in the past without ever having an opportunity to raise their hand or have a seat at the table.”
Haaland is part of a historically diverse cabinet that’s well-positioned to advance a new kind of policymaking: one that seeds civic engagement and gives decision-making power over funding to frontline and disadvantaged communities.
The administration’s promise of an executive order to modernize regulatory review could result in rulemaking that explicitly contemplates distributional and equity impacts: an important step toward rebalancing power.
The president’s high-profile embrace of unions will also be vital in leveling workplace power. As he tweeted this week, “The truth is I’m a union president, and I make no bones about that.” His support for the PRO Act and for a free and fair election at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama is a big deal.
The Next 100 Days, and the Future of New Progressivism
The American Rescue Plan is now law. The fate of the American Jobs Plan remains undetermined. We’re beginning to learn more about the forthcoming American Families Plan.
How will we know new progressivism is truly ascendant?
Looking ahead, we would know the worldview was strengthening if we saw development of some of these policy approaches:
- more direct money;
- money and services delivered quickly to real people and with community control over those resources;
- more public goods;
- less extractive corporate power; and
- more countervailing power for workers and other stakeholders.
We would know it if our leaders continued to emphasize the potential for government to achieve great things: from the rapid vaccination of millions to the decarbonization of our economy. And we would know if they continued to underscore the lasting scars inaction and inertia have caused and could cause.
Tinkering around the edges and patching broken systems can no longer be an option. Neoliberal solutions won’t decarbonize the economy, close the racial wealth gap, or create shared prosperity. They won’t fundamentally change a society that wasn’t ready when COVID struck, or fix the structural flaws that made this crisis so much harder for Black and brown people and women.
The Biden administration must go further in providing public goods, restructuring markets, and creating more equitable institutions.
But after 100 days, we can say with certainty that progress is in motion. A new progressivism is emerging.
Learn more about new progressivism in The Emerging Worldview: How New Progressivism Is Moving Beyond Neoliberalism.