Can Biden Be Our F.D.R.?

The president wants to change the trajectory of the country. He’s off to a good start.,

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“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes,” Mark Twain (supposedly) said. If so, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. could be a couplet. With a few breaks and the skillful execution of what seems to be a smart legislative strategy, President Biden is poised to match F.D.R.’s stunning debut in office.

That doesn’t require Mr. Biden to transform the country before May 1, the end of his first 100 days, the handy if arbitrary marker that Mr. Roosevelt (to the irritation of his successors) laid down in 1933. But for America to “own the future,” as the president promised last month, he needs to do amid the pandemic what Mr. Roosevelt did amid the Depression: restore faith that the long-distrusted federal government can deliver rapid, tangible achievements.

With one of the biggest and fastest vaccination campaigns in the world and the signing of a $1.9 trillion dollar Covid relief package, the president has made a good start at that. His larger aim is to change the country by changing the terms of the debate.

Just as Mr. Roosevelt understood that the laissez-faire philosophy of the 1920s wasn’t working anymore to build the nation, Mr. Biden sees that Reagan-era market capitalism cannot alone rebuild it.

The New Deal was just that — a “deal,” a new social contract between the government and the people, with a new definition of what the government owes us when we’re in trouble.

Before Mr. Roosevelt, it was largely up to local communities and the private sector to relieve suffering and expand employment. Mr. Roosevelt shifted the onus of responsibility and didn’t worry about overshooting the target. Like Mr. Biden today, he argued that spending too little is riskier than spending too much. “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity,” F.D.R. said in explaining the philosophical shift, “than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

The heart of Mr. Biden’s domestic agenda is the same as Mr. Roosevelt’s: jobs and infrastructure. New Deal programs created more than 20 million jobs and built 39,000 new schools, 2,500 hospitals, 325 airports and tens of thousands of smaller projects that did not end the Depression but eventually helped power the postwar American boom.

Mr. Biden’s New Deal — Build Back Better — aims to upgrade the physical infrastructure that Mr. Roosevelt did so much to create. But it’s also a bold effort to add clauses to Mr. Roosevelt’s social contract that include a “service infrastructure” to boost support for the caring professions — the parts of the American economy that cannot be automated or outsourced overseas.

Of all the bills enacted in Mr. Roosevelt’s first 100 days, the one closest to his heart was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which by the summer of 1933 employed 275,000 young men clearing trails, building parks, and restoring the soil. The C.C.C. — “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” — went on to employ close to three million young men and plant over three billion trees. Now Mr. Biden aims to revive and update it with a new $10 billion Civilian Climate Corps that would help prepare for worsening heat waves, wildfires and storms and boost the national service movement that F.D.R. founded.

Like all effective presidents, Mr. Roosevelt knew how to sequence his proposals to build momentum. He split the New Deal into three objectives: “Relief,” “Recovery” and “Reform.” President Biden, who has stressed the importance of “timing,” is essentially doing the same.

“Relief” — through the mammoth American Rescue Plan — has already arrived. In fact, in constant 1933 dollars, the president has provided more relief in his first hundred days than Mr. Roosevelt did in his, though F.D.R. achieved structural changes (especially in the financial system) that Mr. Biden has not attempted yet.

“Recovery” will be broken into separate plans. The $2 trillion American Jobs Plan wouldn’t directly employ people — as Mr. Roosevelt did with his programs like the Works Progress Administration; it would instead use government contractors to invest in not just roads and bridges but water pipes and rural broadband (the equivalent to Mr. Roosevelt’s 1936 Rural Electrification Act bringing electricity to the countryside). We’ll see if cleverly placing many of those projects in red states is enough to win the 10 Republican votes in the Senate necessary to avoid a filibuster. Even small-government conservatives don’t like voting against the economic interests of their constituents.

Another more controversial element of Build Back Better — The American Families Plan, focused on human capital — would fund massive investments in education, health care and child care. These and other projects would be paid for, at least in part, with tax increases on those making more than $400,000 a year — far smaller tax hikes, by the way, than Mr. Roosevelt’s.

Opinion Debate
What should the Biden administration prioritize?

  • Nicholas Kristof, Opinion columnist, writes that “Biden’s proposal to establish a national pre-K and child care system would be a huge step forward for children and for working parents alike.”
  • The Editorial Board argues the president should address a tax system where “most wage earners pay their fair share while many business owners engage in blatant fraud at public expense.”
  • Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso, writes that “the real crisis is not at the border but outside it, and that until we address that crisis, this flow of vulnerable people seeking help at our doorstep will not end.”
  • Gail Collins, Opinion columnist, has a few questions about gun violence: “One is, what about the gun control bills? The other is, what’s with the filibuster? Is that all the Republicans know how to do?”

How is that possible with no Republican votes? The answer is that under a new ruling by the Senate parliamentarian, the arcane process of budget reconciliation — usually a once-a-year event and already employed to enact the Covid relief package — can now be used on multiple occasions. This gives the president the chance to post more F.D.R.-size victories with 50 Democratic votes and Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie.

The rumblings in the Democratic caucus are not likely to matter much. Senator Joe Manchin and a few other Democrats will demand (and win) certain changes, but there is little chance they would sink the centerpiece of the president’s domestic agenda.

The third of Mr. Roosevelt’s “R’s — “Reform” — is tougher. Right now reforming voting, immigration and gun laws requires holding all Democrats and winning 10 Senate Republicans — a tall order without abolishing or at least curtailing the filibuster.

Whatever the fate of specific bills, the broader question contained in Mr. Biden’s agenda is whether the political and psychological break from the past will be as sharp and permanent as the one wrought by Mr. Roosevelt.

To achieve Roosevelt-level permanent structural change, Mr. Biden will have to keep racking up the wins. (Most of Mr. Roosevelt’s enduring accomplishments came after the first year of his presidency). And he will need to connect his program to a spiritual renewal of America’s civic religion. The presidency is “pre-eminently a place of moral leadership,” Mr. Roosevelt said. At his first formal news conference on March 25, Mr. Biden made several efforts — on immigration, “sick” voter suppression and China — to lend his own moral cast to his presidency.

Mr. Roosevelt had it easier on Capitol Hill, with big Democratic majorities in both houses. But it’s a myth that Congress, even in Mr. Roosevelt’s first 100 days, gave him a rubber stamp. Southern Democrats were the Mitch McConnells of their day, forcing Mr. Roosevelt to take half a loaf or less on many bills. President Biden, too, will most likely have to settle for something less than a $15 dollar-an-hour minimum wage.

The X factor then — and now — in moving legislation is the temperament of the president. Does he have the schmooze gene that can help him win those last critical votes?

A few days after taking office, Mr. Roosevelt attended retired Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 92nd birthday party. After the new president left, Mr. Holmes remarked: “Second-class intellect, first-class temperament.”

The same can be said of Mr. Biden. At 78 (Mr. Roosevelt was 51 when he took office), his persona more snugly resembles grandfatherly Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan, whose minor verbal slips were also indulged. He is less devious and manipulative than Mr. Roosevelt, and hardly to the manner born. Otherwise they share many traits.

Both men were ennobled by suffering (Mr. Roosevelt’s polio forced him into a wheelchair; Mr. Biden lost his first wife and, over time, two children), which deepened their empathy and connection to people. Before the presidency, both were repeatedly derided as long-winded lightweights destined to sell out liberal principles for votes. Both were seen as too infirm to be nominated by the Democrats, and won in large part because of disgust with their Republican predecessors — Herbert Hoover and Donald Trump, respectively — who mismanaged the crisis of the day.

Both came to office when democracy was at grave risk (many Americans wanted a dictator in 1933) and saw themselves as called to bolster it. As canny politicians with good relationships on Capitol Hill, both learned to surround themselves with smarter people dedicated to making them look good. Up close, both proved hard to dislike. Meeting Mr. Roosevelt was like, as Winston Churchill said, “opening your first bottle of champagne”; meeting Mr. Biden is like one’s first encounter with a tail-wagging therapy dog.

Mr. Roosevelt essentially invented intimacy in mass communications. When he described those listening on the radio as “my friends” and adopted a conversational (as opposed to the usual stentorian) tone, he did for public speaking what Bing Crosby and other crooners did for singing. He recalled that when he was writing his first Fireside Chat, he looked out the window of the White House and saw the inaugural scaffolding being taken down. “I decided I’d try to make a speech that this workman could understand,” he told an aide. He later said he pictured a Hudson River Valley workplace where one man was painting a ceiling, another fixing a car and a third worked at cash register.

Mr. Biden is no great communicator, but his national bedside manner resembles that of “Old Doc Roosevelt.” In his first prime-time address on March 11, he leaned forward as if comforting a patient, shattering any ice of indifference.

Toward the end, Mr. Biden said, “If we all do our part, this country will be vaccinated soon.” This recalled Mr. Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration, which asked storekeepers to hang a decal of a blue eagle in their windows to signify that they were embracing government price and labor codes (the equivalent of helping vaccinate people). Under the decal was the legend: “We do our part.”

To do his own part — enacting more legislation — Mr. Biden has hinted that he will work with Democrats to amend Senate rules to return to the “talking filibuster” of Roosevelt’s day that actually required obstructionist senators to stay on the floor. (This would mean convincing Joe Manchin, who represents West Virginia in the Senate, that such a reform would not “weaken” the filibuster.)

More filibuster reform will almost certainly be necessary for full Rooseveltian success. With the reconciliation process not available for most legislation, Democrats may need another carve-out like those granted in the last decade for executive branch appointments, federal judges and Supreme Court nominees, all of which now require only 51 votes. The next exception — call it “the democracy option”– would be any bills that expand the right to vote, including H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Even if the president convinced all the Democrats (a big “if”), the gambit could backfire. With big Democratic victories in 1934, Mr. Roosevelt defied the normal physics of midterm elections, where the party controlling the White House almost always loses seats in Congress. The president’s party didn’t gain seats in both the House and the Senate again until George W. Bush used anxiety over 9/11 to help Republicans advance in the 2002 midterms. If the electorate hews to the historical norm, that would give Republicans control after the 2022 midterms and bring big headaches for Democrats.

Whatever the future holds, Mr. Biden and Mr. Roosevelt are now fused in history by the size and breadth of their progressive ambitions. Jimmy Carter took office when liberalism was fatigued; Bill Clinton said “the era of Big Government is over”; Barack Obama was forced to conform to the mantra of deficit hawks. Mr. Biden was lucky enough to have been elected when what the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called “the cycles of American history” are spinning left. He is the first president since Lyndon Johnson who can rightly be called F.D.R.’s heir. Soon we’ll know if he squanders that legacy — or builds on it.

Jonathan Alter is a journalist and the author of “The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope” and, most recently, “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.”

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