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Bryan Bennett is the director of polling and analytics at The Hub Project and a member of the Navigator Research Pollster Team. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.
As President Joe Biden gears up to sell his new infrastructure plan, Democrats are finally calling out Republican hypocrisy on government spending. The GOP, they note, supported Trump’s 2017 tax cuts — which greatly expanded the national debt — but now refuse to back his stimulus bills.
“When the federal budget is saving people’s lives,” Biden said on March 25, “[Republicans] don’t think [spending is] such a good idea.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed more than 550,000 lives, shattered the nation’s economy and shifted Americans’ views about what they want from the federal government. As a result, recent polling has shown record levels of support for a progressive economic agenda to make the economy work for those struggling the most, with voters rejecting the kind of small-government ideas that left us so vulnerable in the first place.
As a pollster at Navigator Research, I’ve been tracking this shift first-hand. Never before have I seen such widespread, bipartisan support for previously radical ideas like universal child care, taxing the rich and comprehensive paid leave.
Republicans have long relied on arguments against government spending — and during the last major economic crisis, it worked for them. In February 2009, 45 percent of Americans opposed President Barack Obama’s Recovery Act, and he faced attacks from all sides about austerity and government bailouts.
But the pandemic has shifted this conventional wisdom by showing the limits of “small government” thinking. Americans care less about the price tag of relief packages, because we know the need is so great. Last May, by a two-to-one margin, people were more concerned the government would do little to help regular people than spend too much.
Biden rose to meet this immense challenge, creating a $1.9 trillion relief package — the American Rescue Plan — to invest directly in the U.S. economy. And because people are seeing results, there hasn’t been backlash about spending — the plan boasts 72 percent bipartisan support.
After the beating that Obama took over the Recovery Act, it’s truly a seismic shift for the U.S. public to be this supportive of yet more government spending. But clearly it does; apparently, the national debt doesn’t impact people’s lives like this virus has.
The American Rescue Plan has shown what’s possible when we’re not afraid to go big: We can invest billions in Indigenous communities, create affordable health care and reduce child poverty. And by investing billions in vaccine distribution, we’ve vastly exceeded expectations for getting shots in all Americans’ arms.
Moreover, new polling shows that even after the passage of the American Rescue Plan, Americans still want trillions of dollars for new infrastructure — not just bridges and roads, but also rural broadband and paid leave. Biden has proposed spending $2 trillion over the next decade for such purposes, which is already causing indigestion among Republican politicians.
But not their constituents.
After years of trickle-down economics, the U.S. public is finally convinced that the government should do more. The pandemic revealed that the trillions spent on Republican tax cuts doesn’t benefit us when it matters most, and we can never go back to pretending that’s what voters want. Our economy is far from recovered, but we have taken the first step to an equitable revival.
Americans truly want to build back better, and that means fighting for bold, progressive ideals.