The American Rescue Plan is set to pass the House today and be signed into law, finally. But although the Democrats have said they want this time to be different than 2009, old habits — such as not doing politics in the hopes that people will give them a gold star for it — are dying hard.
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that President Joe Biden’s name will not be on the $1,400 relief checks that the Treasury is going to start dispersing after the bill is signed.
“The checks will be signed by a career official at the Bureau of Fiscal Service,” Psaki said. “This is not about him, this is about the American people getting relief. Almost 160 million of them.”
The checks are now the most popular part of the plan, since the would-be most popular provision got strangled to death with the help of eight Senate Democrats. They’re the clearest part of the plan, too—the money is going directly into people’s pockets.
Yes, the money for vaccines and state and local governments and restaurants is good and vitally needed, but the average person doesn’t feel that impact in the same way that they do $1,400 hitting their bank account. It’s good politics and policy, even if the amount is smaller than what the Democrats ran on in the Georgia runoffs and more narrowly means-tested than the checks were in the CARES Act.
It’s also a departure from the recovery package passed after President Barack Obama took office. That plan, whose price tag the Democrats negotiated downwards with their enemies the Democrats, contained a tax cut of up to $400 per year for individuals that was designed to go unnoticed. Along with a variety of state-level tax increases that washed out the tax cut, this choice contributed to the perception that the loony libs in Washington were hiking taxes on the decimated middle and working classes in the middle of a recession.
So if the American Rescue Plan is a departure from the Democratic norm, the way it’s pitched should be too. Contrast Joe Biden’s reticence to put his name on the stimulus checks to last year, when former President Donald Trump insisted that the $1,200 stimulus checks included in the CARES Act bear his name and letters be sent to everyone who got one telling them that he was the reason they were getting their money.
The concept of directly telling voters who’s responsible for them getting a check was astonishing to more than a few people; Ralph Nader and former Reagan Justice Department attorney Bruce Fein apparently thought it was illegal, and then-Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer tried to stop this tragedy from ever happening again with a law specifically banning it. As The New Republic‘s Alex Pareene wrote at the time, people like Schumer view stuff like this as as “playing dirty,” but only when “they spend a lot of time explaining why they can’t do things their base actually wants”:
When politicians pass bills that build bridges, they make sure their names are on those bridges…It only makes sense to penalize this behavior if you are fundamentally uncomfortable with trying to win elections by giving tangible things to your constituents. Doing things people like and taking credit for it isn’t a cheat code; it used to be called politics.
There were (justifiable) complaints at the time that the money might be delayed for some time as a result, but there was never any evidence that there was a substantial delay as a result of Trump’s name going on the checks, and few people remembered anyway by the time November rolled around.
What people did remember was that Trump’s name was on the checks. As the Wall Street Journal reported in the immediate aftermath of the election, as the political class was coming to terms with seismic pro-Trump shifts in regions of the country with large Latino populations, Latino voters in South Texas cited the checks as one reason they voted for Trump.
The Democrats own this bill, for better or for worse. Rep. Pete Aguilar recently referred to the package as “the boldest action taken on behalf of the American people since the Great Depression.” Their success or failure in the 2022 midterms and beyond rides on whether or not this plan and what they do beyond it succeeds in saving people’s lives, both in the literal sense of the pandemic and preventing all of the negative economic and social consequences (addiction, suicide, isolation, etc.) from the last piss-poor recovery from happening again.
So if this is as good a start as they say it’s going to be, then there’s little reason for Biden not to put his name on the checks. After all, it is his plan.