Biden Doesn’t Need to Be FDR or LBJ to Change America

Not your average Joe? Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Two months into his presidency, Joe Biden has already enacted “the largest antipoverty effort in a generation.” Now, with the momentum built by the passage of the American Rescue Plan, the president is poised to “reengineer America” through massive investments in green infrastructure and expansions of the welfare state, thereby ringing in the “dawn of a new economic era” and securing his title as a “latter-day FDR.

Unless: He’s merely passed the largest package of “temporary expedients to dampen hardship during a crisis” since … the one Donald Trump signed into law last year. Now, with no emergency to force the hands of his party’s moderates in the Senate, the president is poised to pass nothing of great consequence, forcing his clear-eyed progressive supporters to grapple with the likelihood that “the best of Bidenism is already in the rearview mirror.

These are just two of the more extreme positions in the roiling debate over whether the first two months of the Biden era augur a “transformational” or “FDR-sized” presidency.

The prominence of this question in coverage of the administration may seem strange. After all, Biden’s career-long speciality has been identifying the path of least political resistance and taking it with aplomb. And even if the president weren’t an inveterate triangulator, it’s not clear why his performance would be best judged by its congruence with some grand historical analogy. But progressives have been waiting decades now for the coming of the anti-Reagan — the figure who will raise the New Deal order from its grave, scrub it clean of all white-supremacist anachronisms, and plant it so firmly into the public’s common sense that future Republican administrations would destroy themselves trying to knock it down.

Thus, in 2008, Barack Obama touted his ambition to change “the trajectory of America” in the same way that Ronald Reagan had done. Obama’s subsequent failure to realize that aim — and the tepid, inequitable recovery that followed his administration’s modest reforms — grew the constituency for a policy realignment. Thomas Piketty’s eye-popping illustrations of inequality, the IPCC’s increasingly harrowing reports, and Donald Trump’s scandalous election brought the likes of the IMF, the Financial Times editorial board, and David Brooks into the coalition against “neoliberalism” (however much their desired alternatives may diverge from that of Bernie Sanders). The COVID pandemic reinforced this intellectual fashion for a new economic order, while appearing to open up political space for its construction. By May 2020, Biden himself was broadcasting an ambition to be the next FDR. And his success in shepherding a nearly $2 trillion relief bill through Congress has inspired more serious consideration of this prospect — both within the commentariat and, apparently, his own mind.

In an article headlined “Biden’s New Deal: Re-engineering America, quickly,” Axios reported this week:

President Biden recently held an undisclosed East Room session with historians that included discussion of how big is too big — and how fast is too fast — to jam through once-in-a-lifetime historic changes to America. Why it matters … The historians’ views were very much in sync with his own: It is time to go even bigger and faster than anyone expected. If that means chucking the filibuster and bipartisanship, so be it.

The administration is putting its policy trial balloons where its leaks of weird meetings are. This week, the White House dropped word of its impending proposal for a $3 trillion package of public investments in infrastructure, green energy, free community college, universal pre-kindergarten, and a permanent child allowance, among other things.

So: Is Joe Biden on his way to re-engineering America’s political economy in a manner roughly analogous to the New Deal, Great Society, or Reagan Revolution?

My short answer is, “probably not.” My slightly less-short answer is “hmm, define ‘roughly.’”

I’m not sure that I have a long answer.

What I do have, though, are three considerations that, in my opinion, should inform the “will Biden be a transformative president” debate, even if they do not settle it:

1) The American Rescue Plan is not just the CARES Act 2.0.

Those most skeptical of the “Joe Biden, Neoliberalism Slayer” narrative contend that his governing agenda thus far is less evocative of FDR’s or LBJ’s than it is of Donald Trump’s. More specifically (and less plausibly, in my view) Jacobin executive editor Seth Ackerman argues that since the American Rescue Plan (ARP) is nearly identical to the CARES Act in its structure and consequences, Biden’s relief bill represents no more (or less) of an ideological break with the pre-COVID consensus than Trump’s relief bill did. As Ackerman writes:

Biden’s COVID relief plan is what you would have expected a President Joe Biden to pass in an emergency. Like the 2020 vintage, it’s a collection of temporary expedients to dampen hardship during a crisis. What it’s not — by itself, anyway — is any kind of paradigm shift. Nor does it transform anything in particular, at least not past 2021.

I think this is wrong (and for reasons that Ackerman himself hand-wavingly acknowledges).

It’s true that the CARES Act was a significant achievement in its own right. The generosity of the program’s unemployment benefits (which replaced more than 100 percent of many laid-off workers’ lost wages), the extension of such benefits to the non-conventionally employed, and the provision of unconditional cash assistance to all poor households were all major and beneficent departures from past practice.

But the CARES Act was also a relief law drafted at the dawn of a world-historic crisis. Financial markets had just plummeted. Prohibitions on in-person commerce were commencing. And all across the developed world, governments were preparing income-replacement programs to help workers weather an emergency of indiscernible length and severity. Thus, one did not need to dissent much from the preceding four decades of macroeconomic orthodoxy to support the CARES Act (or at least, to favor it over total inaction). When a pandemic forces the state to engineer mass unemployment for a brief period of time, the government should try to keep hard-hit households and firms solvent through cash transfers is a position that’s perfectly reconcilable with the view that monetary policy should privilege price stability over full employment, and/or that conventional models of the relationships between inflation, unemployment, and deficit spending are broadly accurate. In fact, one didn’t necessarily have to accept the most minimal premises of Keynesianism to back the measure, since it wasn’t even a stimulus bill, properly defined. For these reasons (among others), CARES inspired little opposition among center-right economists, let alone center-left ones.

The American Rescue Plan, by contrast, was drafted at a time when the total net worth of U.S. households was $12 trillion higher than it had been before the pandemic. Most American families were, in strictly financial terms, doing unusually well. After all, only a minority of the public suffered unemployment during the COVID crisis, while a much larger percentage of the population kept their jobs, collected an unexpected $1,800 from the government, and dramatically reduced their spending, as myriad forms of consumption became verboten. As a result, U.S. households had less debt and more disposable income in January of this year than they did at the peak of the Trump era expansion. Meanwhile, unemployment was falling, shots were going into arms, and stocks were hovering near record highs.

Enacting a $2 trillion relief package in this context is a very different proposition than doing so in March 2020. As the socialist economist J.W. Mason has argued, the American Rescue Plan cannot be justified without negating many core premises of macroeconomic orthodoxy. Before the bill’s passage, Larry Summers lamented that it injects three times as much demand into the economy as the Congressional Budget Office deems necessary for closing the “output gap” — which is to say, the gap between how much stuff our economy could produce if it fully employed our nation’s labor and resources and how much we are poised to produce under current demand conditions. The ARP is therefore a large bet that America is capable of employing far more people — at far lower cost to price stability — than the dominant economic models of the past 40 years would predict. Put in more pointed, political terms: With the ARP, the federal government is risking a depreciation in the real value of the economic elite’s bonds and cash holdings for the sake of minimizing involuntary joblessness among the nation’s most vulnerable workers. U.S. fiscal policy has not embodied these priorities — to anywhere near this extent — for a very long time. As such, the ARP is a break with precedent, a paradigm shift, if you will.

And that’s before one considers its specific provisions. Unlike CARES, ARP provides fiscal aid to state and local governments; in fact, it provides aid well in excess of their pandemic-induced revenue shortfalls. This makes the bill a de facto infrastructure program, as state governments are allowed to use their excess fiscal relief dollars on public investment. And it also creates a far more favorable terrain of struggle for progressives in blue states, who will be able to focus more on winning new social programs, and less on defending existing ones against austerity.

Finally, the ARP establishes America’s first child allowance, albeit on a temporary basis. Ackerman acknowledges that this would indeed constitute a major expansion of the U.S. welfare state. But he dismisses the provision’s significance on the grounds that it is temporary (after all, if we’re going to pretend temporary provisions are permanent ones, then the CARES Act’s $600-a-week UI benefits were also a triumph of welfare-state expansion). I think this is reasonable but misguided. The White House has not only stated its intention to make the child allowance permanent, and announced that its next major legislative package will do so; such an intention is also reflected in the existing policy’s design. Allowing enhanced unemployment benefits to expire for a relatively small and politically disempowered minority of Americans is not all that electorally hazardous. But providing a monthly basic income to almost every family in the country — then allowing that benefit to drop to zero ahead of a midterm election — is politically insane. That doesn’t mean Democrats won’t do it, of course. But it does suggest that the child allowance is designed for renewal to a greater degree than any of the CARES Act’s welfare provisions were.

In sum: The ARP is only merely “what you would have expected a President Joe Biden to pass in an emergency” if you’d presumed that Biden was (1) campaigning in 2020 as a more ardent proponent of full employment than any Democratic president since LBJ, and (2) would consider a state of affairs in which capitalists are thriving, the middle class is more flush with cash than it was at the peak of the last expansion — but a politically disempowered minority of working people is suffering financial devastation — to be an economic “emergency.” Very little in Jacobin’s 2020 coverage of Biden evinces this expectation. (And, to their credit, some of the magazine’s contributors have tacitly acknowledged that the relief bill exceeded their expectations, even as it fell well short of meeting the working class’s needs.)

2) America’s dominant classes do not need its political economy to be as cruel and inegalitarian as it is.

One source of left-wing pessimism about Biden’s prospects for mounting a “transformational” presidency is the objective political and economic weakness of the American working class. When Lyndon Johnson enacted his Great Society programs, more than 23 percent of the U.S. labor force was unionized; today, that figure is 10.8 percent. The year of LBJ’s election, America witnessed 3,655 major work stoppages; the year of Biden’s, it saw eight. Franklin Delano Roosevelt united working-class voters behind a single partisan banner to an unprecedented degree. Biden’s coalition, by contrast, is more heavily populated by college-educated professionals than that of any Democratic president in modern history.

American workers are thus more disorganized, politically divided, and quiescent than they were during the two previous golden ages of progressive economic reform. Meanwhile, the achievements of Black Lives Matter notwithstanding, contemporary left-wing social movements are nowhere near as large or formidable as those of the 1960s; to the contrary, a defining feature of modern political life is widespread social atomization and civic disengagement. And although the socialist left demonstrated some electoral potency over the past five years, it has proven little threat to congressional Democratic incumbents outside of a few urban centers. The party leadership may have underestimated Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020, but its preferred candidates defeated the Vermont senator handily both years nevertheless.

For these reasons, it would be hard to attribute any major leftward shift in the Democratic Party’s approach to governance primarily to changes in a balance of power — whether between capital and labor, or the party Establishment and its progressive wing. If a permanent child allowance is won, it will not be because a militant welfare-rights movement forced capital’s hand; should a mini Green New Deal be secured, it will not be because the Sunrise Movement posed a credible threat to Biden’s renomination.

Rather, if the Biden presidency yields a historically exceptional burst of progressive reform, it will seemingly validate an idealist theory of political change: Social democratic “policy entrepreneurs” — working both within the party apparatus and outside of it — popularized ideas about macroeconomic management, climate policy, and welfare spending that were then internalized by the party leadership, in no small part because exogenous events (e.g., the COVID crisis, Jerome Powell’s appointment to the Fed, Donald Trump’s loose fiscal policies) made those ideas look more legitimate and politically viable. This is not to say that the electoral left’s rising prominence and power were irrelevant; Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were surely two of the left’s most influential policy evangelists. But to the extent that progressives won any of Blue America’s civil wars over the past five years, these were battles for ideological hegemony in discrete issue spaces, not ones for the levers of party control.

All this said, even if Biden follows through on his $3 trillion infrastructure plan — and thereby becomes the most significant progressive reformer since LBJ — that wouldn’t condemn historical materialism to the dustbin of history. The labor movement’s weakness and the right’s burgeoning strength with non-college-educated voters may not preempt progressive reform, but they do probably limit its horizons, and render its gains more vulnerable to changes in elite consensus. I think the socialist historians Tim Barker and Matt Karp are right to emphasize how integral a reduction in elite fears of inflation and worker power was to the passage of the American Rescue Plan. It is at the very least not clear that Joe Biden — or his disproportionately upper-middle-class constituency — would support such high levels of public investment and social expenditure in a context where fiscal space was felt to be scarce rather than abundant.

Three decades ago, the Trump tax cuts would have made it more difficult for a subsequent Democratic government to increase spending, as that government would have felt an obligation to reduce the deficit it had inherited. Today, moderate Democrats feel compelled to offset a significant portion of new spending, but feel no obligation whatsoever to pay off inherited debts. As a result, Trump’s tax policies have expanded the bounds of fiscal possibility by providing Biden & Co. with a large bucket of politically painless pay-fors; between deficit spending and reimposing 2017-level tax rates on the superrich, Democrats can make a great deal of headway toward social democracy before ever impinging on the market incomes of their upper-middle-class constituents.

Which is to say: Material interests and class power do place boundaries on the possibilities for reform. For this reason, it is highly unlikely that Biden’s presidency will witness advances for American labor anywhere as significant as those that transpired under FDR. But between Trumpism and “the left wing of the possible,” there remains a great deal of space. Simply put, America’s economy over the past four decades has been far crueler and more unequal than either superrich capitalists or affluent suburbanites need it to be. In truth, even a Western European–style welfare state (and the associated tax rates) is not contrary to the enlightened material interests of the upper middle class; only the ultra-wealthy can be confident that they will never have need for social insurance. The primary obstacle to a great many policies that would transform the lives of the unfortunate has been ideological. And if the left isn’t winning “the war of ideas,” it’s been decades since it put up this strong of a fight.

The Biden coalition may be incapable of delivering a Great Society, but a markedly better one is within reach.

3) Biden lacks the large congressional majorities that facilitated FDR and LBJ’s transformative agendas.

It isn’t only — or even primarily — the state of the left and organized labor that makes Biden’s aspirations to an “FDR-sized” presidency improbable. The more fundamental problem is the state of his political party.

Roosevelt and Johnson governed with the aid of large congressional majorities. And although Ronald Reagan presided over divided government, his opposition was trending in his own ideological direction even before he took office. Biden faces a radically different partisan landscape. His Senate majority hinges on the whims of a conservative Democrat from an overwhelmingly Republican state, while his congressional opposition barely recognizes his entitlement to the presidency, let alone, to enact his campaign platform. These two realities make it all but impossible for Biden to amass a record of legislative achievement on par with LBJ’s. And they also make it less likely that his tenure will mark an inflection point in U.S. politics akin to that of the New Deal or Reagan Revolution.

The GOP’s intransigence effectively means that Biden will be incapable of enacting any of the non-budgetary components of his agenda — from voting rights to immigration to labor law reform to gun control to new environmental regulations — unless the legislative filibuster is gutted. And the filibuster will only be gutted if Joe Manchin wants it to be. As of this writing, the West Virginia senator has given the public little cause for confidence that his avowed opposition to eroding the 60-vote threshold is insincere.

Crucially, the narrowness of the Democrats’ congressional majorities aren’t a product of one poor election cycle, but rather, of deep-seated structural disadvantages. As the electorate has polarized along lines of density and education, Democrats have ended up with a coalition that is systematically underrepresented at every level of government. The party’s disproportionately college-educated, city-dwelling base is spread inefficiently across the nation’s political geography, delivering Democrats more votes than they need in urban House districts and coastal states, while leaving Team Blue uncompetitive in wildly overrepresented white rural areas. As a result, it took a pair of exceptionally pro-Democratic national environments in 2018 and 2020 for the party to eke out a bare majority in the Senate this year (even as Chuck Schumer’s 50-vote caucus represents 41.5 million more people than Mitch McConnell’s). Meanwhile, since the median U.S. state is nearly seven points more Republican than the nation as a whole, the GOP boasts control over far more state governments than Democrats do. Which means that Republicans will have an excellent shot at dominating the House redistricting process, and all but clinching a majority through gerrymandering alone, unless Democrats abolish the filibuster and ban partisan redistricting. Even if that were to happen, given the historical tendency of the president’s party to lose seats in midterm elections, Republicans would remain likely to reclaim one or both chambers of Congress next year.

In other words, for Biden to recenter American politics in the manner that FDR or Reagan did — by implementing a paradigm-shifting agenda, and then winning validation for it through a period of partisan electoral dominance — Democrats will need to overcome the polarization that has defined U.S. politics for the past two decades.

One can tell a plausible story about how this happens: Biden continues implementing overwhelmingly popular economic policies, presides over 8 percent growth and the tightest labor market in modern memory, and a small but substantial segment of working-class voters rethink their attachment to the party of plutocracy.

For the moment, though, polarization isn’t blinking.

And if Democrats cannot reverse the rightward drift of non-college-educated, rural Americans, Biden will be more likely to usher in an era of conservative political dominance than a progressive one. If the economy’s performance over the next four years appears to validate Biden’s macroeconomic management, then his Republican successors may well embrace aspects of it (election-year “stimmys” could become an American institution). And once a child allowance or universal prekindergarten are in place, the GOP may find them as difficult to dislodge as Obamacare or Social Security.

But unless Democrats expand their coalition — or pass reforms that mitigate the underrepresentation of their existing one — Blue America’s long wait for an anti-Reagan to “make America liberal again” may extend into the 2030s.

Biden Doesn’t Need to Be FDR or LBJ to Change America