Will Joe Biden’s presidency be the equivalent of Barack Obama’s third term? Yes and no.
In some ways, Biden seems to be mimicking Obama, whom he served as vice president for eight years. Biden’s choice for Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, had the same job under Obama. Other Biden appointees, including Janet Yellen, John Kerry, Tony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Neera Tanden, Susan Rice and Denis McDonough, are also Obama alums and Democratic Party traditionalists.
But the nation’s priorities have changed since Obama left office in 2017, and so have the Democratic Party’s. Biden’s ultimate accomplishments will depend on the amount of cooperation he gets from Congress, and whether Democrats control both houses for at least two years, or party control remains split. Biden has already signaled key priorities, however, with some notably different from Obama’s and some quite similar. Here’s a breakdown:
Where Biden differs from Obama
Climate policy. Obama had a mixed record on climate, not really making it a priority until his second term. He sharply boosted fuel-economy standards, implemented the Clean Power Plan, and entered the United States into the Paris climate agreement. At the same time, however, U.S. oil and gas production soared under Obama, as the new drilling method known as fracking took hold. Obama took office amid the worst recession since the 1930s, and high-paying oil and gas jobs were a bright spot in an otherwise cloudy employment picture. Obama also had a friendly Democratic majority in Congress for just two years, which frustrated many of his policy goals for the last six years of his presidency.
Since Obama left, Americans have grown considerably more concerned about global warming and the problems it is causing. President Trump undid many Obama actions, but Americans gave him poor marks on the environment, with 59% rating Trump’s performance on the environment as “poor” in one Gallup poll. Democrats introduced the Green New Deal in 2019, and while Biden doesn’t support the plan’s sweeping overhaul of much of the U.S. economy, he does endorse the central goal of sharply curtailing carbon pollution.
Biden wants to achieve net-zero carbon emissions in the United States by 2050, which means we’d have to take at least as much carbon pollution out of the environment as we put in. It would take many aggressive actions to hit that target, such as the rapid adoption of electrified vehicles, better heating and cooling efficiency, and new “carbon capture” technologies to remove carbon from the environment. Much of this would require new legislation, which Biden might not get. But his starting point on climate policy is more aggressive than Obama’s, and young people in particular are impassioned about the issue—including some conservatives. Biden’s climate views have shifted along with the public’s, and the prospects for at least modest change are better than they were under Obama.
Health care. After getting the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, Obama spent the next six years defending it—from Republican hostility, lawsuits, and his own administration’s disastrous rollout of the program in 2013. There was no momentum for much else.
A decade later, Republican efforts to kill the ACA are finally running out of gas—and Biden is ready for next steps. Biden wants to start by fixing flaws in the ACA, such as making subsidies more generous, to help lower insurance costs. He also favors a new public health care plan, similar to Medicare, for people who still can’t find affordable coverage through the ACA or an employer. And Biden would lower the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60. Again, most of this would require legislation, but Biden is starting at a different place than Obama left off.
Trade with China. Trump’s China policy didn’t necessarily succeed, but Trump changed the U.S. stance toward China in ways that are probably permanent. Biden has said he won’t immediately lift the Trump tariffs on about half of all Chinese imports. Instead, he’ll probably use those tariffs as leverage to demand other trade reforms. What Biden won’t do is return to the economic cooperation Obama fostered with China, simply because that has become politically unpalatable. Trump managed to highlight Chinese trade abuses in a way neither party can excuse at this point.
Student debt. Obama developed a limited program meant to cap monthly student debt payments at a percentage of income and forgive debt for qualifying applicants after 20 years of payments. Biden has offered a much more generous—or reckless—plan, depending how you look at it. Biden says his program will forgive between $10,000 and $50,000 of student debt outright, a nod to the debt-forgiveness plans pitched by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren when they ran against Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination. This will be a tricky promise for Biden to keep, though, because many moderates object to the idea as a giveaway that rewards excessive borrowing.
Immigration. Biden has said mass deportations of undocumented immigrants during the Obama administrations were a “big mistake.” So he’d approach the problem differently, but he hasn’t spelled out how. Biden has said he’d end construction of Trump’s border wall, ease Trump restrictions on immigration and return to other Obama immigration policies, such as a pathway to citizenship for “dreamers” brought to the country illegally as children.
Where Biden is similar to Obama
Taxes. Trump signed tax legislation in 2017 that lowered the rates for businesses and most taxpayers. Biden wants to push the top individual rate, now 37%, back to 39.6%, where it was under Obama. Trump cut the business tax rate from 35% to 21%, and Biden wants to set it back to 28% – the same level Obama called for in a tax-reform proposal that never got traction. Biden favors a variety of other tax hikes that are similar to Obama proposals. These would all require new legislation, which is going to be tough to pass, just as it was under Obama.
Infrastructure spending. Biden favors more than $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending, some of it green infrastructure that would be part of his climate plan. That’s not so different from the $787 billion stimulus bill Obama signed shortly after taking office in 2009, which included green-energy investments and road and bridge projects in just about every state. Congress passed the 2009 bill in a crisis, when the economy was deep in recession and needed help. Congress has already passed three stimulus bills to address the coronavirus recession, and is struggling to negotiate a fourth. The appetite to spend may be gone by the time Biden takes office.
Minimum wage. Biden wants to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15. Back in 2013, Obama backed legislation to raise the wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10. Let’s just say $15 is the new $10.10, which is to say it’s way above the $7.25 minimum wage that’s been in place since 2009. Biden is picking up the same difficult cause Obama had no success with.
“Made in America.” Every presidential candidate promises this in one form or another. Biden’s version is $700 billion federal investment over 10 years in key industries such as electric vehicles and artificial intelligence, to draw more high-paying manufacturing jobs to the United States. Obama had a similar plan, though with a much smaller price tag. If Biden could persuade Congress to fund this type of investment, he would best his former boss. But it’s a safer bet this plan will stay on the shelf, next to Obama’s and those of many other presidents.
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