Editor’s Note: Lanhee J. Chen is a regular contributor for CNN Opinion. He is the David and Diane Steffy Fellow in American Public Policy Studies at the Hoover Institution and the director of Domestic Policy Studies in the Public Policy Program at Stanford University. Chen previously served as the policy director of the Romney-Ryan 2012 presidential campaign and senior adviser on Policy to the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Last week, many conservative pundits spent time focused on two incidents that they argue exposed President Joe Biden’s shortcomings. The first was his tripping and falling while on the stairs leading up to Air Force One and the second was his use of extensive notes (which some analysts referred to as a script) during the first press conference of his presidency.
The clips of Biden’s apparent ineptitude went viral on some social media sites and, by the end of the week, they were covered extensively on conservative talk radio and some television networks as well.
This week’s controversy was over whether Biden should have more control over his own dogs, one of whom reportedly defecated on the floor of the White House and, for the second time, bit a federal employee.
Some of these critiques are undoubtedly an outgrowth of how many progressive media figures covered the Trump presidency, where the former president’s physical slip-ups and gaffes were the subject of breathless coverage. But conservatives should be wary of following suit. When they focus too much on Biden’s stylistic shortcomings, it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees.
The more important critique is the one that should be leveled at the substance of Biden’s presidency – the massive policy changes that he has already overseen and is proposing in the months and years to come. Republicans in Congress and across the country should be focusing their fire on Biden’s policies and, even more importantly, presenting their own plans for solving some of the problems he proposes to address.
Biden recognizes the opportunity he’s been given to make his mark on American politics. In fact, he recently invited a small group of historians to the White House to discuss lessons that are applicable to his presidency. Biden, who aspires to be as transformational as Franklin Roosevelt, reportedly asked attendees about the implications of going big on policy changes when presented with the opportunity. And that’s exactly the path down which Biden has walked.
For starters, the amount of spending he has signed into law and proposed will easily dwarf that of any president in recent history – when the federal debt already exceeds the size of our economy. Biden introduced this week a roughly $2 trillion infrastructure plan that spends money on far more than roads and bridges. In fact, only about 5% of the plan is devoted to those priorities. Just a fraction of the total goes to what might be considered “traditional” infrastructure priorities, while the rest is devoted to mitigating climate change and modernizing facilities like schools and long-term care facilities, as well as boosting manufacturing.
The bill also includes House-passed changes that would make it easier for labor to organize by weakening so-called “right-to-work” legislation, which has passed in 27 (mostly red) states. This legislation, where in effect, gives workers a choice of whether to join unions and prohibits those unions from requiring that all workers – whether they are members or not – contribute to the costs of union representation through the payment of dues. Organized labor has long opposed “right-to-work” laws and has been looking for ways to curb their influence.
Many of these items are part of a progressive policy wish-list to be sure, but critics of the President’s plan should focus on the fact that it’s paid for by rolling back some of the tax relief passed during the Trump years (particularly the reduction in the corporate tax rate). And even the way in which the plan is “paid for” requires a budgetary sleight-of-hand – Biden wants to take 15 years to pay for eight years of spending which, as one analyst noted, is the equivalent of only paying for half of the proposed spending. Usually, budget analysts look at how much spending will cost over a decade and how much revenue is raised during the same time to pay for it. But Biden’s plan only includes tax hikes to finance part of the spending over the first 10 years, meaning that a significant amount of spending (about $1.5 trillion) will be deficit-financed.
All of this spending comes on the heels of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act, which included Covid-19 relief provisions, but also other liberal policy priorities like a massive expansion of Obamacare, over $80 billion in money for many poorly-run pension plans (some of which are co-managed by unions), and a $350 billion bailout for state and local governments, with blue states – which have had higher unemployment rates in part due to stricter Covid-related economic lockdowns – the disproportionate beneficiary.
And let’s not forget how Biden started his time in office, a little over two months ago, with a flurry of executive activity (three times the number his recent predecessors had signed weeks into their presidencies) that revoked many of Trump’s significant executive actions and put a stake in the ground for a new policy direction.
Biden used the power of the pen to re-enter the Paris climate agreement and re-engage with the World Health Organization, strengthen Obama-era immigration policies, restore collective bargaining power for federal workers and stop construction of the wall at America’s southern border. Most, if not all, of these Trump policies are ones that conservatives generally supported and probably ought to be part of a substantive critique of what this President and his administration are doing.
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But, instead, too many on the right are spending their time talking about whether Biden is spending too much time away from Washington, DC, his verbal gaffes or other issues that have very little to do with how he will be judged when his time in office is done.
If voters return congressional majorities to Republicans in 2022 and decide to boot the President from office in 2024, it likely will have very little to do with any of the matters on which conservatives have trained their fire against Biden now. It will be because they presented a substantive governing vision that was more compelling – and succeeded at telling voters why the policies that Biden and Democrats are pursuing won’t get the job done.