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Republican incompetence has made the federal government popular again

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But the bigger takeaway from the plan’s uniquely unifying qualities may be that the vast majority of Americans are simply hurting so badly after four years of total GOP incompetence, they actually crave a government that works again. 

As the Washington Post noted, the nearly $800 billion stimulus package that President Obama passed at the outset of his presidency in order to save the economy wasn’t nearly so well received—not only by the public but also by centrist Democrats, who ultimately ensured the stimulus wouldn’t be large enough to give the economy a quick reboot. Instead, the Obama-era recovery sputtered along in a way that didn’t bring immediate relief to most Americans and failed to blunt an epidemic of home foreclosures that spread across the country. 

But one of the lawmakers who was intimately involved in negotiating that stimulus package says the American public has undergone a seismic shift in the intervening decade.

“People have gone from being anti-government, to beyond being even neutral on it, to thinking: ‘We need the government; it has to help us,’” said former congressman Barney Frank, who chaired the House Financial Services Committee from 2007 to 2011. “You have a new consensus in America—that the government has an important role, and that Ronald Reagan was wrong. For the first time in my lifetime, people are saying that the government has done too little rather than doing too much.”

The case that Frank makes comes on the heels of a Republican reign in which GOP leaders ensured hundreds of millions of Americans would die due to sheer governmental incompetence paired with outright indifference. On top of that, when Republicans had unified control of the federal government, they poured money into corporate coffers through a giant tax break that did next to nothing for working Americans. Even their pandemic stimulus packages were primarily targeted at helping American businesses survive, particularly as the crisis progressed. By contrast, Biden bet on the poor to juice the economy, as New York Times analyst Jim Tankersley observed. In other words, while Republicans hewed to the trickle-down economics championed by Reagan, Biden and Democrats are pushing the recovery from the bottom up.

But what we might in fact be witnessing is the dawning of a new era in which the decades-old GOP cudgel of big government being the problem rather than the solution has finally reached the point of diminishing returns. One of the reasons Republicans have remained so loyal to Reagan-era ideas over the course of decades is because they helped the party reframe a conversation about the role of the federal government that had mostly won the day since the advent of New Deal progressivism in the 1930s. 

That changing public sentiment has undoubtedly been helped along by a Republican Party that is pitifully unserious in deadly serious times. 

“Moderate vulnerable Democrats feel a lot more freedom to vote for a big spending bill in the current moment—because the polls suggest it’s popular, and because the case against Democrats is being made on Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head, not the debt,” said David Hopkins, a professor of political science at Boston College.

Even someone like Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia, who spent the ’90s championing Democratic candidates who campaigned on reducing the national debt, sees the need for a different approach. 

“I was knocking doors for Joe Biden in Pennsylvania [last fall], and the most memorable conversation I had was with a guy who said, ‘I just want to know who will send me the checks,'” Beyer recalled. 

The COVID-19 crisis has given Democrats an opportunity to address the dire needs of Americans in ways not seen in decades—even during the Great Recession. With Biden’s relief package, Democrats seized that opportunity in a way that just might influence Americans’ opinions about the role of government for a generation to come.

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