Nearly a year ago, as a sweeping bill to respond to the COVID crisis took shape, Donald Trump had a specific priority: he wanted his name on direct-aid checks. The Republican played no meaningful role in shaping the legislation, but it was an election year and the then-president saw electoral value in self-glorification.
As it turned out, under federal law, Trump couldn't actually sign the checks -- he wasn't "an authorized signer for legal disbursements by the U.S. Treasury" -- so the administration added "President Donald J. Trump" to the memo line. According to multiple accounts, it was the first time a disbursement from the Internal Revenue Service featured the name of the sitting president -- not for any practical reason, but because Trump saw a political opportunity.
Will his successor do the same thing? During yesterday's press briefing, a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki whether President Biden "wants his signature" on the aid checks, just as Trump did. She replied:
"We are doing everything in our power to expedite the payments and not delay them, which is why the president's name will not appear on the memo line of this round of stimulus checks. The checks will be signed by a career official at the Bureau of Fiscal Service. This is not about him; this is about the American people getting relief — almost 160 million of them."
Psaki went on to say that Biden didn't think adding his name "was a priority or a necessary step," adding, "His focus was on getting them out as quickly as possible."
Speed was also an issue last spring: though the Trump administration denied it, senior IRS officials said in April 2020 that adding the Republican's name to the checks slowed their delivery. There will be no such delays now.
It's worth emphasizing that in most instances, the underlying question is moot: millions of Americans will receive their direct-aid benefits through direct deposit, not paper checks sent through the mail. Many will also receive debit cards -- which also won't feature Biden's name.
But it's the larger observation that resonates as a political matter: Biden is focused less on self-promotion and a public-relations campaign, and more on governance. For his predecessor, the opposite was true.
It's possible, of course, for a president to be too indifferent to political marketing. In early 2009, President Obama probably assumed a bit too much about public awareness of the benefits of his Recovery Act. This anecdote, among others, stood out for me:
In 2009, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) went to the White House and begged Obama officials to have the treasury secretary send letters to millions of American households explaining how they would benefit from a $1,000 tax cut in Obama's stimulus. The administration refused. "If you went to the streets of Philadelphia in 2010 and asked every man and woman if they got a tax cut from Obama's stimulus, they would have said no," Rendell said.
They had, but they didn't know it. The Recovery Act was effective in rescuing the United States from the Great Recession, but many of its benefits were subtle -- and subtlety doesn't pack a political punch.
The coming weeks and months, however, I suspect the Democrats' COVID relief package will be received -- and perceived -- in a different way. The Recovery Act's tax benefits added some extra money to workers' paychecks, some of which went unnoticed, but when millions of Americans get their $1,400, they'll almost certainly notice and know why.