- - Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The left’s first big Biden disappointment will be his failure to raise taxes. Although Joe Biden made broad promises to the left, the economy and November’s election give him narrow margins to deliver on them. To succeed, Mr. Biden is going to have to follow reality not ideology, and govern as Bill Clinton not Barack Obama.  

To get to the White House, Mr. Biden first had to go left to be nominated. Doing so required him taking positions that diverged from his establishment past — and from conventional presidential positions. Nowhere was this divergence greater than in his call for massive new taxes — $4 trillion by various estimates.  

Few policies are more important to the left than tax increases. More than a means, they are an end in themselves. Tax increases do not just allow the left to spend (after all, they could simply borrow), they allow the left to redistribute wealth.

Therefore of all Mr. Biden’s promises, the left will be keenest on him keeping this one. They will also be most disappointed here, because Mr. Biden is unlikely to raise them.  

Despite politics having appeared to open the way to raising taxes, should Democrats hold their Georgia runoff election leads and take control of the Senate, the most obvious reason for not raising them is economic: America’s economy is still reeling from a shock equivalent to the Great Depression. It is not expected to recover its pre-COVID-19 GDP levels until next year, with unemployment remaining relatively high throughout 2022. Increasing taxes will only slow the economy and prolong its recovery. America cannot afford this; therefore Mr. Biden can afford it even less.



The politics of a tax increase is even worse than its economics. Any economic problem will be immediately ascribed to a Biden tax increase. For that reason, Obama avoided them when at the same juncture in 2010 following the financial crisis. Mr. Biden cannot afford appearing to the majority of Americans as being to the left of Mr. Obama, regardless of what the left wants. He also cannot afford to lose the insurance policy of being able to blame any economic problems on Mr. Trump.  

Time is also short for Mr. Biden; it is not four years, but just 21 months — the time until 2022’s midterms. This is how briefly Mr. Biden will enjoy his greatest Democratic numbers in Congress. Both Mr. Biden’s Democratic predecessors fared terribly in their first midterms. If past is prologue, Mr. Biden is likely to lose House and Senate seats (both Mr. Obama and Mr. Clinton did). So, Mr. Biden is stuck in a time bind: The economy is weak when his congressional strength is greatest, and his congressional opportunity is likely to be gone by the time the economy has recovered.

Further complicating things, Mr. Biden’s congressional numbers are woefully small already — far less than Mr. Obama’s or Mr. Clinton’s first-year numbers — even if Democrats win both Senate runoff elections in Georgia. Thirty-nine House Democrats won in November by less than 10 percentage points and 12 Senate Democrats seats will be up in 2022. These members’ electoral concerns, as they approach what historically have been bad midterms for Democrats, will make Mr. Biden’s congressional numbers even more tenuous, because these members must be conscious of bad political votes — especially tax increases.  

Almost every factor points away from Mr. Biden increasing taxes early in his presidency. The only factors pointing to it are how much the left wants it and how dependent Democrats are on the left’s support. Yet, Mr. Biden is now less dependent on the left’s support than his party is. Mr. Biden has won the White House, and no president has been denied renomination in over 150 years.  

Mr. Biden’s hope for reelection lies not with Democrats’ left as much as it does with America’s moderates. As such, Mr. Biden’s model must be Bill Clinton not Barack Obama.  

Mr. Biden has neither Mr. Obama’s broad appeal nor Mr. Obama’s bona fides with the left. In contrast, Mr. Clinton, who never won a majority of the popular vote in either of his presidential elections, survived by seeming to make accommodation with Republicans after they won Congress in 1994. Mr. Biden must start at Mr. Clinton’s 1994 course correction and quickly establish a working relationship with Republicans before his first midterm leaves him in far worse shape. Seeking to increase taxes is the last way for Mr. Biden to do this, and it is why he will not — even if he could.

• J.T. Young served in the Office of Management and Budget and at the Treasury Department.

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