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“The president has delivered the biggest economic recovery plan since Roosevelt, the largest infrastructure plan since Eisenhower, the most confirmed judges since Kennedy, the second largest health care bill since Johnson, and the largest climate change bill in history.”
— White House chief of staff Ron Klain in an interview with Politico’s PlaybookAugust 19
We keep seeing Klain’s victory lap quote pop up on social media, so he seems ready for a fact check. Let’s discuss each statement in the order it is presented.
Klain cleverly framed his quote. He names some of the most effective or popular presidents, and then doesn’t say that President Biden surpassed his achievements, only that he is the “greatest” since.
It is important to note that comparing federal programs decades apart is very difficult. A simple adjustment for inflation can be misleading, given the differences in the size of the US population. Economists will generally compare as a percentage of gross national product (GNP), the broadest measure of the economy, or cost as a percentage of national output.
“The greatest economic recovery plan since Roosevelt”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” designed to combat the Great Depression in the 1930s, unfolded over several years. It included programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which hired millions of people to build roads and buildings and also sponsored artists to create works in a variety of forms.
Bill Dupor, an economist and vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, calculated that the cost of FDR’s programs represented 40 percent of the national output in 1927.
By contrast, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 passed by President Barack Obama accounted for 6.1 percent of 2008 output, it said.
At the start of Biden’s presidency, Congress passed a $1.9 trillion Covid aid package. That sounds great, but in 2020, under President Donald Trump, Congress passed four tax relief packages in March and April as the coronavirus pandemic tanked the economy. Those bills totaled $2.4 trillion. Then in December $900 million in additional Covid relief was approved. That adds up to $3.3 trillion.
Biden’s bill amounts to 8.87 percent of a year’s output, based on our review of Dupor’s calculations in 2021, surpassing Obama’s. But Trump’s greedy stock totals 15.4 percent of a year’s output, easily outpacing Biden.
So how does Klain make this claim? The White House says it’s also adding a bunch of other “economic recovery” bills, including a massive infrastructure bill, a law promoting semiconductor production in the United States (the Chip Act), and the oddly named Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). a bill on climate change and health care.
White House officials say it would be the equivalent of New Deal legislation. Depending on what you count, the New Deal can also be said to include transformational programs like Social Security, unemployment compensation and a law providing the right to collective bargaining — laws, White House officials said, that they cannot be measured in dollars alone.
Still, by our math, the total spending for all legislation under Klain’s rubric is still short of Trump’s $3.3 trillion. But there are several ways to process these numbers.
“I take the ‘recovery’ legislation as ‘recession recovery’ legislation,” Dupor said in an email. “President Biden signed into law other fiscal packages, including the Jobs and Infrastructure Investment Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. Those would not qualify as recovery expenses using the definition above, although I suppose one could define ‘recovery plan’ differently.”
That is what the White House argues.
“President Biden has delivered the biggest and most significant recovery in terms of what it will mean for the American middle class, in line with what he did,” said White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates. “There is no comparison between the structure and impacts of the historic programs that President Biden has signed into law for the middle class, many of which will endure in the long term, such as Medicare negotiating prescription drug prices, and those of Trump. years. This is just apples and oranges.”
In any case, as we shall see, in this first line Klain is counting banknotes which he then refers to in his quote.
“The biggest infrastructure plan since Eisenhower”
Here, Klain is again referencing one of the largest federal investments in history: the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, approved in 1956. Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Transportation Center, said the Eisenhower project was a “ phenomenal amount of money for the time,” the equivalent of 5.59 percent of GNP, about $1.3 trillion of guaranteed budget authority today.
In another calculation, he said, the budget for the highway system, based on a map negotiated by the states in 1947, amounted to 35 percent of an entire year’s federal budget in the year the bill was signed into law.
Davis said the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed under Biden, even when you add in the Chip Act and IRA elements, doesn’t come close to those numbers. He said the infrastructure bill has about $383 billion in highway trust fund authority over five years, plus $446 billion in general fund advance appropriations and $15 billion in other items, for a total of $844 billion in guaranteed budget authority. (The bill is sometimes reported to be worth $1.2 trillion, but that higher number includes funds for highways and other programs already assumed as part of the current spending baseline.)
But Klain didn’t say Biden’s bill outpaced Eisenhower alone, just that it’s the biggest since Eisenhower. This seems to be correct.
Amusingly, as vice president, Biden once claimed that $48 billion of transportation funding in the 2009 Economic Recovery Act was the “largest public works project since the Eisenhower Interstate System.” That paltry number is dwarfed by the bill passed under his presidency.
“Most confirmed judges since Kennedy”
Klain relies on a Pew Research Center estimate that as of August 8, the first day of the Senate’s August break, 75 federal judges nominated by Biden had been confirmed, narrowly outnumbering Presidents Bill Clinton ( 74), George W. Bush (72), and Ronald Reagan (72). President John F. Kennedy had had 102 justices confirmed at the time, far more than any other recent president. (The list includes judges from district courts, appellate courts, and the Supreme Court.)
But by the time Klain made his comment, the numbers had changed, according to the database maintained by the Federal Judicial Center. As of August 18 in the second year of a president, Biden still had 75 justices, while Clinton had surpassed him with 85. Kennedy still held the record at 105.
“The second largest health care bill since Johnson”
This is the most modest claim, since the health provisions in the bills signed by Biden do not compare to the Affordable Care Act approved by Obama in 2010, let alone the creation of Medicare, insurance medical care for the elderly, and Medicaid, health care for the poor, under President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965.
But healthcare laws are notoriously difficult to pass, as Clinton can attest. The IRA for the first time allows Medicare to directly negotiate the price of certain drugs, an achievement that eluded Obama and Trump. The IRA also extended subsidies, included for the first time in the Covid relief bill, that made health insurance under the ACA more affordable.
“The largest climate change bill in history”
There is no argument here. Virtually no climate change legislation had previously been passed by Congress, except for tax credits for renewable energy and other relatively minor items.
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