WASHINGTON — In 2009, then-Vice President Joe Biden was "Sheriff Joe,” the enforcer making sure federal dollars from a massive economic aid package were getting to the right places and quickly.
This time, President Joe Biden’s role is different: He's lead salesman for the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid package, eager to score political points as Americans begin to reap benefits from the massive government relief effort.
Biden signed the bill into law on Thursday and then extolled it in a prime-time address to the nation that night. On Friday, he celebrated the package again, this time with Democratic lawmakers in his first Rose Garden event as president.
The White House has plotted an ambitious campaign to showcase the law's contents while looking to build momentum for future, more difficult parts of the president’s sweeping agenda. Biden will travel to the battleground states of Pennsylvania and Georgia next week to talk it up and other top administration officials will fan out around the country to do likewise.
West Wing aides say there is a determination to avoid the mistakes of more than a decade earlier, when President Barack Obama’s administration didn't do enough to promote its own economic recovery plan. But Biden gets a measure of credit for the successful implementation of the plan itself, according to veterans of the Obama administration.
Biden wound up with oversight of the government’s mammoth $787 billion stimulus plan after he wrote Obama a memo about how it should be run and he savored his role as the program’s top cop.
He held weekly conference calls with mayors, governors and others to press for wise use of the money, and he called regular Cabinet meetings to keep the Washington end of the program on track. At one 2009 Cabinet meeting, Biden pressed federal officials to give him a quick heads-up when projects fell behind schedule, saying, “You’ve gotta give me more ammo so I can pick up the phone and be the sheriff.”
Biden used his role as “Sheriff Joe” to cut red tape and “get the stimulus itself into the economy,” said Robert Gibbs, who was Obama’s press secretary at the time. He predicted that Biden would be equally relentless in selling the relief package this time.
“I would be surprised if two days passed in the next four years when you don’t hear discussion about the legislation," Gibbs said. “This is so important that it is literally something you say during the last rally of your reelection campaign.”
Biden is expected to appoint someone to oversee implementation of the COVID-19 relief plan. And while Biden himself will not be as in-the-weeds this time, aides still expect to get plenty of questions from him about exactly where and when the money is moving.
“He will play a different role: He is also the commander-in-chief and overseeing an economic recovery, overcoming the pandemic and addressing a range of crises,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “But in his soul, he is a details guy and he will want to roll up his sleeves and call the local mayor, governor, school district to make sure the money gets out the door.”
There are challenges that lie ahead for Biden, although White House aides point to polling that shows the package is popular with Republican voters even though not a single GOP lawmaker voted for it. No Republicans planned to attend the Rose Garden victory lap.
Biden’s White House has embraced the strategy of under-promising and then over-delivering, allowing it to frequently beat target dates and goals on, for instance, vaccine distribution.
But in his speech Thursday night, Biden laid out an ambitious timeline for all adult Americans to be eligible for the vaccine by May 1 and dangled the prospects of life getting closer to normal by July 4. And while he attached caveats about a possible virus surge, Biden's new timeline generated pressure to meet the bold headlines it produced.
Republicans, who are trying to label the COVID-19 relief bill as partisan, believe that they will be able to mount a far more effective pushback to the Biden administration when the president moves into more polarizing parts of his agenda such as immigration, climate change and voting rights.
“Less than two months into his presidency, and Biden is showing he never truly meant his promises of bipartisanship and unity,” said GOP chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. “Instead of working on meaningfully targeted relief legislation with Republicans, he chose a hyper-partisan bill full of pork.”
The Obama bill faced headwinds because it followed the bailout of the banks, engineered under President George W. Bush, and came as the economy remained stagnant. This time, Americans will start seeing the impact much sooner — some will even see their $1,400 stimulus check deposited this weekend.
Economic forecasts also project a robust recovery by year’s end, and Biden should be able to point to concrete job growth, making it an easier victory to sell than the one in 2009.
Jennifer Palmieri, former communications director in the Obama White House said Obama had to make the case that “things are still bad but would be worse than they are if we had not passed this.” Biden, in contrast, she said is able to tell Americans “there are signs of life and hope and growth.”
She added: “The White House should feel empowered: The message to be drawn from the COVID bill is that Republicans in D.C. are out of touch with the rest of the country. Time to step on the gas.”
Below is a breakdown of the main planks of the spending legislation:
The legislation provides a direct payment of $1,400 for a single taxpayer, or $2,800 for a married couple that files jointly, plus $1,400 per dependent. Individuals earning up to $75,000 would get the full amount, as would married couples with incomes up to $150,000.
The size of the check would shrink for those making slightly more, with a hard cut-off at $80,000 for individuals and $160,000 for married couples.
Biden estimates that 85% of Americans will be eligible for the payment. Some groups that were not eligible for prior payments — such as dependent college students and disabled adults — are now eligible.
Officials have said some checks could arrive as early as this weekend.
“That means the mortgage can get paid. That means the child can stay in community college. That means maintaining the health insurance you have,” Biden said. “It’s going to make a big difference in so many of lives in this country.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that the administration is doing everything in its power to expedite payments. As such, the Treasury is working to get more payments to taxpayers by direct deposit. The agency will be able to send direct deposit payments to those who have their information on file from 2019 or 2020 tax filings or who provided it through other programs.
Biden's signature will not appear on the checks, a move his predecessor made that was criticized as a delay in getting payments out.
Expanded unemployment benefits from the federal government will be extended through Sept. 6 at $300 a week. That’s on top of payments from state unemployment insurance program.
Despite a modest recovery, millions of Americans remain unemployed. The plan would also extend two key pandemic programs, which benefit about 11.8 million Americans.
The first $10,200 of jobless benefits would be non-taxable for households with incomes under $150,000 but only for benefits from 2020. The IRS will have to issue guidelines on how to put this into practice.
Additionally, the measures provide a 100% subsidy of COBRA health insurance premiums to ensure that the laid-off workers can remain on their employer health plans at no cost from April 1 through the end of September.
The package also contains a number of valuable tax breaks. One of the most notable is an increase in the tax credit that taxpayers can claim for dependent children.
Under current law, most taxpayers can reduce their federal income tax bill by up to $2,000 per child. The bill will now increase the tax break to $3,000 for every child age 6 to 17 and $3,600 for every child under the age of 6.
Families would get the full credit regardless of how little they make in a year.
The aim is to deliver the money, which is an advance payment on the tax credit, in smaller monthly payments instead of one larger lump sum.
The exact timing of when this money would arrive is still unclear. If the Treasury determines that a monthly payment isn’t feasible, then the payments are to be made as frequently as possible.
Elaine Maag, the principal research associate in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, said monthly payments could begin as soon as July but if the government opts for a quarterly payments it take until could fall.
Add in the $1,400 checks and other items in the proposal, and the legislation would reduce the number of children living in poverty by more than half, according to the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University.
The bill also significantly expands the Earned Income Tax Credit for 2021 by making it available to people without children. The credit for low and moderate-income adults would be worth $543 to $1,502, depending on income and filing status.
The benefit of the EITC would not be felt until taxpayers file their returns for the 2021 tax year, which would typically be in the beginning of 2022.
The plan does not include student loan forgiveness, but it does allow for any income from the forgiveness of student loans be to be tax-free from 2021 through 2025.