The centerpiece of the U.S. rescue will be direct payments worth $2,000 to individuals. (That figure technically includes the $600 already sent to millions of households.) Direct payments are the opposite of the sly paternalism preferred by Obama officials in the 2009 stimulus. Americans are not going to see two grand appear in a bank account and go, Huh, I can’t put my finger on it, but I’m feeling subconsciously nudged to buy more socks. They’re going to feel very consciously, very fist-pumpingly elated. Checks are the confetti cannon of the economic-stimulus arsenal—not maximally efficient, just maximally awesome.
Awesomeness matters. One lesson from the Obama years is that smart policy making isn’t just about doing brainy stuff; it’s about doing good and popular stuff in a way that keeps you in power so you can do more good stuff. The Democrats’ failure to properly stimulate the economy in 2010—or get credit for their very real contributions—led to catastrophic midterm losses in the House that made it impossible for them to accomplish much of anything in Obama’s last six years in office. For non-mysterious reasons, polls show extraordinary support for giving $2,000 to every American household as a kind of stimulus-qua-consolation gift for making it through the year from hell (one study indicated that seven in 10 Republicans support the direct payments). With stimulus checks, Biden could endear himself to the persuadable middle of the U.S. electorate, which might enjoy liking an American president, for once.