Reminder: This Never Ends Well

Signals of retreat on the $2,000 checks echo Democrats’ disastrous surrender on the public option in 2009.

On January 4, Joe Biden made an unequivocal pledge, telling voters that by electing Democrats to Georgia’s senate seats, “you can make an immediate difference in your own lives, the lives of people all across this country because their election will put an end to the block in Washington on that $2,000 stimulus check, that money that will go out the door immediately to people who are in real trouble.”

Less than four weeks later:

  • Biden is pushing $1,400 checks, rather than using his election mandate to demand new, full $2,000 checks.

  • Democrats are now suggesting that it could take at least until March to even pass the legislation, even as the economic crisis worsens.

  • Biden is now responding to threats of Republican obstructionism by floating the idea of reducing the number of people who would even get the checks. Reuters reports that “he is open to negotiating the eligibility requirements of his proposed $1,400 COVID stimulus check, a nod to lawmakers who have said they should be more targeted.”

  • The signals of retreat are happening even as new polling data show that the original promise for a full $2,000 survival check is wildly popular. 

The good news is: there’s still time to reverse this trajectory, so now is not the time to give up hope and stop pushing.

However…if all of it feels familiar, it’s not just because it seems like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute — it is because it feels like we’ve gotten into a flux-capacitor-powered Delorean, flown back in time and dropped ourselves back into the year 2009. 

You’ll recall that back then, Barack Obama and Biden got themselves elected in the middle of an economic crisis after promising to pass a public health insurance option. It was a promise as clear and explicit as the $2,000 checks promise is today — their platform was explicit in pledging that “any American will have the opportunity to enroll in the new public plan.”

But then over the course of the year, as Republicans in the congressional minority kicked and screamed, the administration ever so gradually started backing down, rather than using the election mandate to try to shame the GOP into submission. 

By the middle of the year, Obama said: "The public option, whether we have it or we don't have it, is not the entirety of health care reform.” His Health and Human Services secretary said that it was "not the essential element" of health care reform. 

By the winter, Obama flatly lied, insisting “I didn’t campaign on a public option.”

And then by 2010, the Obama White House had killed the plan, and Senate Democrats refused to even bring it up for a floor vote when they had the chance. Soon after, voters delivered what Obama called a “shellacking” in the midterm election, effectively foreclosing on the possibility of transformative change during Obama’s presidency.

A little more than a decade later, the public option fight should be a harrowing cautionary tale for Biden on both the policy and the politics. He had a front-row seat in watching a bad-faith Republican opposition kill a much-needed initiative, and then use Democrats' failure to deliver to win at the polls. He of all people should know that this story never ends well.

The question is: Can he and Democrats learn from the past? 

The $2,000 checks initiative does not have to go down the same way the public option went down. The president and congressional Democrats do not have to do what weak-kneed, wimpy Democrats of the past have so often done. They do not have to negotiate against themselves, word-parse their way out of campaign pledges and delude themselves into thinking that Republicans are good-faith legislative partners.

They could instead try to use their election mandate — and the weakened state of the GOP — to demand full survival checks, rather than pretending that bad-faith Republican senators have any standing to make policy arguments.

They could remember the truism once voiced by none other than Karl Rove, who correctly said that when it comes to political capital, “If you don’t spend it, it’s not like treasure stuck away at a storehouse someplace. It is perishable. It dwindles away.”

In short, they could actually make an honest effort to wield the power they’ve been granted, and give themselves the best possible chance to win the policy and the politics. 

But doing that would require a psychological shift. Biden and his party would need to unequivocally and unapologetically prioritize making material gains for the country rather than prioritizing the kind of bipartisan comity and etiquette in Washington that Beltway pundits love but that ends up stopping progress.

They have to choose which side they are on — and there is no middle ground. 


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