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Biden's inauguration starts the clock for Democrats to go big

There's no time to waste on fake bipartisanship.
Photo illustration of a black and white checkered flag being waved at a donkey with three stars ready to race on a blue track against a yellow background.
Two years in power starts now.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

At noon on Wednesday, a divisive, unpopular Republican administration will have ended. By the end of the day, Democrats will have control of the House, the Senate and the presidency. The last time this happened, in 2009, the country faced an international economic crisis, several wars overseas, calls to prosecute members of the departing administration, a nation grappling with its racist past and a federal government poised to shatter spending — and debt — records.

That all sounds familiar.

Unlike then, though, Democrats don't have the luxury of assuming that they have four years to govern. If anything, history shows that Democrats need to hit the ground running and assume they have just two years to achieve their goals, bipartisanship be damned.

President Barack Obama and his team in 2009 were sure that what would become the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act wouldn't be the only stimulus bill Congress passed after the financial crisis. They were wrong. The result of haggling with congressional Republicans was a smaller deal that, while it helped to stanch the bleeding, was too small and phased out too quickly to give the economy the oomph it needed after the 2008 financial crisis. It was still big enough, though, that GOP opportunists could hammer him for it for the next two years before they retook control of the House.

President-elect Joe Biden, in contrast, decided to swing for the fences with his stimulus package, the first part of which is estimated to offer $1.9 trillion in relief. Packed inside are all kinds of provisions that will be necessary in the coming months, including $160 billion to deal with Covid-19 that includes vaccine distribution and expanded testing, and $20 billion to aid public transit.

But the second half of Biden's plan — which would address investment in infrastructure and clean energy jobs — won't be detailed until later. Biden's team is also reported to be planning to negotiate with Republicans over this first package, rather than using budget reconciliation to pass it with only Democratic votes. Which is, to be honest, worrying.

Two major differences between 2009 and 2021 tell me that Biden needs to be willing to walk away from talks with the GOP sooner rather than later. First, the country's financial status means bigger is absolutely better. His pick for treasury secretary, former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, framed the price tag in her testimony to the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday as the only logical choice given historically low interest rates.

Biden needs to be willing to walk away from talks with the GOP sooner rather than later.

Second, unlike interventions after the Wall Street-fueled collapse in 2008, there's no perception that this spending will be solely for the benefit of big business. Instead, Biden's plans are, for the most part, targeted directly at middle- and working-class Americans struggling during the pandemic, which makes for better politics should the GOP get in the way. Cries of "socialism" ring a bit hollower to a country whose government is actually delivering the help it needs.

That's only one part of the broader agenda, though. Biden also plans to go hard on immigration reform, a leftover goal from the Obama years, when House Republicans blocked a deal that had passed the Senate. It's a big enough proposal that "top Latino and immigrant advocacy groups who've seen details of the coming package said they were stunned by the boldness of Biden's plan," Politico reported.

And while the House has been the center of Democratic politics for the last two years, Senate Democrats are ready to get into the game. Their first bill would expand voting rights, restoring the Voting Rights Act's protections and preventing gerrymandering. Even Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, wants to go full speed ahead on massive infrastructure spending — up to $4 trillion over 10 years. And, of course, President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial, which will get underway as soon as the end of this week, will shape the political landscape for the next four years.

Biden may not get 15 bills through Congress as Franklin D. Roosevelt did during his legendary first 100 days — but his team has a full plate and little time to spend pussyfooting around with Republican intransigence. The reality is there's going to be a very short honeymoon period for Democrats. Already, you see discontent in the ranks that Biden's plan would add $1,400 direct payments to the last $600 rather than be a standalone $2,000. Providing deliverables to the American people will, in the end, be more crucial than securing a handful of GOP votes.

Voters' memories are short — there's no guarantee that the slim majorities in the House and the Senate won't end as quickly as they began.

Because Republicans remember 2009 just as well as Democrats, along with the "shellacking" they gave Obama in 2010. Their internal divisions over what to do about Trump and his legacy may fade once there's a new punching bag for them to train their sights on, and I guarantee that the midterm elections will take over everyone's brains once the calendar rolls over to 2022. And voters' memories are short — there's no guarantee that the slim majorities in the House and the Senate won't end as quickly as they began.

There's a lot of ground to make up for after four years of ineffective, if not nonexistent, governance from the Trump administration. But better to have a lot of ideas to execute than none, and there seems to be no shortage of the former. If congressional Democrats wake up on Jan. 20, 2022, anything but absolutely exhausted from the previous year's sprint, then it will have been an opportunity missed.