If there is any consistent throughline in Joe Biden’s long career, it is his commitment to the ideology of austerity.

He has obsessively pushed for Social Security cuts for decades, and he is stocking his administration with deficit hawks — including today’s announcement that notorious Social Security cutterBruce Reed will be White House deputy chief of staff. Biden has even threatened to veto Medicare for All legislation on the grounds that it costs too much (even though Congress says it would actually save a lot of money).

Now, in the whittling down of the stimulus legislation, we see the first concrete example of how Biden’s ideology can change policy in the here and now — and in deeply destructive ways.

As pain and suffering is crescendoing across the country, Biden refrained from aggressively pushing the bipartisan initiative for $1,200 survival checks. Indeed, at a time when there was a legitimate chance to flip some Republicans — including Donald Trump! — against McConnell and push for a more robust stimulus, he demurred.

However, the New York Times reminds us today that Biden was “not an idle bystander in the negotiations.” On the contrary, the paper of record tells us that the president-elect played a decisive role in making sure the legislation was cut in half. Here is the key excerpt:

With Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate far apart on how much they were willing to accept in new pandemic spending, Mr. Biden on Dec. 2 threw his support behind the $900 billion plan being pushed by the centrist group. The total was less than half of the $2 trillion that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, had been insisting on.

Mr. Biden’s move was not without risks. If it had failed to affect the discussions, the president-elect risked looking powerless to move Congress before he had taken the oath of office. But members of both parties said his intervention was constructive and gave Democrats confidence to pull back on their demands.

Read that again, just so it sinks in: Biden endorsing an initiative to slash the stimulus bill in half “gave Democrats confidence to pull back on their demands” for a much more robust rescue package at a time when America faces rising food insecurity and poverty. His enthusiastic lauding of the final bill underscores the role he played.

“In November, the American people spoke clearly that now is a time for action and compromise,” Biden said in a statement. “I am heartened to see members of Congress heed that message, reach across the aisle, and work together. This is a model for the challenging work ahead for our nation.”

That last line of Biden’s statement is arguably the most disturbing foreshadow of all: He is depicting the process — which starved America for months and now skimps on benefits — as a terrific “model” for the future.

Notably, Biden’s austerity ideology was not aimed at the $671 billion military spending package that was tacked onto the COVID rescue bill, which also included billions for Trump’s Space Force and new weapons systems. Instead, austerity was targeted at the part of the omnibus legislation that was supposed to help people whose lives have been destroyed by the pandemic.

Biden’s pernicious role in this episode previews what we can expect when he takes office. After all, if you draw a Venn diagram of Biden’s priorities and McConnell’s priorities, the overlap is budget cutting zealotry — and Biden is building an administration full of precisely those kinds of zealots.

I don’t particularly enjoy being the bearer of bad news here — it’s not fun to report on these painful truths. But it’s better that we know what we’re dealing with, rather than pretending everything is swell.

When it comes to budget politics, I’ve spent the last year and a half of my life warning about the dangers of Biden’s particular brand of austerity ideology — and for the most part, few have seemed to care about it at all. In fact, Democratic voters happily rewarded Biden with their party’s nomination, even after a series of ads and primary debates spotlighted him bragging about working with Republicans to try to slash Social Security.

Perhaps Biden skated because he so brazenly lied about his own record and because austerity can seem like such an esoteric and intangible concept.

But now we see what Biden austerity means in practice. It means meager $600 survival checks instead of $1,200 checks in the same package that pours money into the Pentagon, gives rich people big new tax breaks and doubles funding for Congress’s own private health care system. It means inadequate unemployment benefits in a bill that devotes $6 billion to making business executives’ meals tax deductible and $3 billion to a tax break for landlords.

If progressive advocacy groups, activists and lawmakers do not call out and confront austerity politics head on, it is going to be a painful four years. They’ve been warned about Biden’s ideology for a long time — the stimulus bill is the biggest warning of all.

Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images

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