WASHINGTON, Nov 8 — When Joe Biden walks in to the White House as president in January, he will have the opportunity to reshape the world’s largest economy, but first he will have to get it back on its feet.
The United States is starting to recover from a historic contraction in growth and tens of millions of job losses caused by the world’s largest Covid-19 outbreak, which spoiled the previously healthy economy and contributed to voters’ decision to oust President Donald Trump in this week’s election.
On the campaign trail, the 77-year-old former vice president promised a slew of policy departures from Trump, such as raising the minimum wage, rewriting the tax code, investing massively in infrastructure and lowering the country’s carbon emissions.
But in order to achieve those, he will first have to subdue the coronavirus pandemic, while navigating a Congress that could be split, with Biden’s Democrats holding a narrow majority in the House and control of the Senate still undecided.
“He has an ambitious policy agenda, it’s hard to argue with that. You can certainly argue it’s not ambitious enough,” said Shai Akabas, economic policy director at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Tax the rich
Like former president Barack Obama, under whose tenure he served as vice president, Biden takes office with an economy that is reeling.
The US$2.2 trillion CARES Act stimulus package passed in March helped temper some of the damage caused by business shutdowns to stop Covid-19 from spreading, but key parts of that law expired and the economy is far from healed.
If the outgoing Congress fails to approve a package in the closing weeks of Trump’s presidency, getting a stimulus measure approved will be one of the first things Biden does, Akabas said.
Next, Biden likely will turn to the tax code, as practically every American president does at some point in their term.
Trump did so in 2017 lowering taxes on corporations and the rich.
Mark Duggan, director and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, said Biden will likely try to reverse those cuts, cranking rates back up on the country’s largest businesses and people making more than US$400,000 a year.
“For the typical American, tax policy changes from a Biden administration are going to be pretty minimal. I think for high income people they’re going to be quite significant,” Duggan said.
Kyle Pomerleau, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, warned the short-term gains from higher taxes on the wealthy could eventually depress business activity and undermine whatever benefits a stimulus package brings.
“I think it would be unwise for him to, on one hand, provide a stimulus and then, on the other hand, take some of it with a very large tax increase on employers,” he said.
Other planks of “Bidenomics” include a US$1.3 trillion infrastructure investment along with increasing the minimum wage to US$15 per-hour, expanding paid medical and family leave and a “Buy American” policy meant to boost US domestic manufacturing.
But some of his fellow Democrats may demand more aggressive action from the new administration, particularly on health care policy.
And the party is also far from united on how Biden should handle the country’s commercial relationships after Trump entangled Washington in a trade war China.
JP Morgan investment bank said Biden will probably focus on executing his domestic policies before tackling commerce, and likely won’t immediately modify this year’s “phase one” trade deal that cooled tensions with Beijing.
When he does act, it will be in concert with allies in Europe — unlike Trump’s go-it-alone approach.
“We expect that a Biden administration would continue to de-couple technological links with China, but would do so systematically within the structures of the domestic and international rulemaking,” the bank said in a report.
The deficit looms
Another obstacle looming for his administration is the budget deficit, which skyrocketed to US$3.1 trillion in the fiscal year ended September 30 — more than double its previous record — fuelled by the coronavirus emergency spending measures.
Duggan, who worked in the Obama administration, blamed the tax cuts passed under Trump for fuelling the deficit’s growth prior to the pandemic, but acknowledged raising levies on high earners may not be enough.
“If you raise taxes, you’re going to potentially influence economic activity in some ways. That will generate a lot of revenue (but) not nearly enough to eliminate the deficit,” Duggan said.
A more formidable obstacle for Biden is a potential Senate majority for Republicans, who have shown little inclination in the upper chamber to compromise on the proposals of Democratic presidents.
During Obama’s term, they used concerns over the debt and deficit to hamstring his economic policies after the 2008 global financial crisis, though no such worries were raised when Trump cut taxes.
Pomerleau said the expiration of parts of Trump’s tax cuts in 2025 could offer Democrats negotiating leverage with Republicans, but he has slim hopes for many changes under Biden if the legislature remains divided.
“If he doesn’t get a majority in the Senate, then it doesn’t look good for much of anything,” he said. — AFP