A year ago, Joe Biden assumed the presidency amid optimistic predictions among left-of-center pundits that he was planning a legislative agenda scaled to emulate the transformative presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, the legendary creators of, respectively, the New Deal and the Great Society. In fact, as New York’s Gabriel Debenedetti reported, the massive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic had Biden thinking big about his plans practically from the moment he nailed down the Democratic presidential nomination. As Debenedetti noted in May 2020, Biden himself invoked FDR:
“I think it’s probably the biggest challenge in modern history, quite frankly. I think it may not dwarf but eclipse what FDR faced,” Biden told CNN’s Chris Cuomo last month. “The blinders have been taken off because of this COVID crisis,” he said to a group of 68 donors who gathered on Zoom for a fundraiser a few weeks later. “I think people are realizing, ‘My Lord, look at what is possible,’ looking at the institutional changes we can make, without us becoming a ‘socialist country’ or any of that malarkey.”
The FDR comparisons also stemmed, in part, from Biden’s central “return to normalcy” appeal to Americans tired of both COVID-19 and Donald Trump. Like Roosevelt, he wanted to reassure a traumatized nation that life could soon begin to assume its accustomed contours via a burst of focused and energetic leadership in Washington.
But when Biden’s actual agenda became apparent via his various “plans” (American Rescue, American Jobs, and American Family), the LBJ comparisons grew owing to his focus on anti-poverty efforts (with a subtext of racial justice) of the sort that Democrats have largely shirked for decades.
Now, at the start of 2022, with Biden’s agenda having met at best mixed results and his popularity low and sinking, the conventional wisdom holds that the president’s transformational ambitions kept him from confronting the challenges Americans wanted him to tackle: COVID-19 and an inflation-plagued economy. Indeed, the prepared remarks he delivered at his January 19 press conference showed an effort to recalibrate his message to focus on those two issues and to justify everything he has proposed as germane to one or both of them.
At this inflection point for Biden, along comes New York Times contrarian Nate Cohn with a reassessment of the FDR-LBJ comparisons, arguing that Biden failed to emulate FDR’s practical-minded focus on the specific emergency conditions he faced, and instead followed LBJ’s hubristic path:
The decision to prioritize the goals of his party’s activist base over the issues prioritized by voters is more reminiscent of the last half-century of politically unsuccessful Democratic presidents than of Mr. Roosevelt himself.
It’s not so much Mr. Roosevelt’s New Deal as Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. One launched an era of Democratic dominance; the other brought that era to its end.
Cohn’s focus on the long-range political consequences of what Roosevelt and Johnson were trying to do makes assessing his judgment of Biden impossible. We don’t know what’s ahead for the two major parties, beyond a likely (and very typical) walloping for Democrats in the 2022 midterms. But we do know that Biden is not going to bring “an era of Democratic dominance” to “its end” because his presidency was actually preceded by three decades in which neither party could secure a durable majority. And the most important point of contrast between Biden and either of his vastly accomplished predecessors is that he took office with almost no margin for error in Congress.
When FDR took office in 1933, his party held the Senate by a 59-36 margin, and the House by an incredible 313-117 margin. When LBJ took office in 1963, Democrats controlled the Senate by a 66-34 margin and the House by a 258-176 margin. The very next year Democrats increased their Senate margin to 68-32 and their House margin to 295-140. Yes, for both FDR and LBJ there were deep ideological splits among Democrats that reduced each president’s leverage for progressive (especially on civil rights) legislation, but the huge party margins still created a lot of room for ambitious maneuvering.
Both the earlier Democratic presidents, moreover, benefited from some bipartisan support on key initiatives. 81 House Republicans and 16 Senate Republicans voted for FDR’s landmark Social Security Act in 1935. Similarly 70 House Republicans and 13 Senate Republicans voted for LBJ’s 1965 legislation creating Medicare and Medicaid. By contrast, Biden faced a determined obstructionist GOP whose leader had not (and still has not) conceded the legitimacy of the election that made him president.
FDR’s biggest first-term nemesis was not Republicans or even conservative Democrats but the U.S. Supreme Court (which led to his ill-fated Court-packing scheme but also to a subtle shift in Supreme Court jurisprudence that helped keep the New Deal going). And while LBJ’s commitment to civil rights and an expanded federal government did help create a backlash that led quickly to big Republican gains, his equally firm commitment to the Vietnam War did just as much political damage while also contributing to the country’s economic problems. There is no equivalent Biden foreign-policy boondoggle on the horizon with anything like Vietnam’s impact.
Similarly, the pro-Democratic political realignment Cohn credits to FDR was actually well under way by the time he took office, building on the big gains Democrats were making during the 1920s in both the big cities and in farming areas. And the unraveling of the New Deal coalition under LBJ began with fissures in the Solid South in the 1950s and a parallel suburbanization trend that inevitably moved the former constituents of urban Democratic machines into more competitive and conservative territory.
In other words, there was a lot going on politically in both the early 1930s and the early 1960s that’s not going on in today’s chronically polarized and gridlocked landscape. Conversely, if Joe Biden made one big mistake going into his first year of office, it was not legislative ambition (though having a plan B for what he’d do if two Democratic senators decided to throw down roadblocks to his legislation would have been helpful), but his failure to anticipate two devastating COVID-19 variants, and to counter COVID-19 policy grievances he didn’t really create. It was also, arguably, very bad luck for Biden that COVID-19 produced an economic problem — inflation — that no president or party has ever successfully handled without major collateral damage. Certainly, the chronically deflated U.S. economy that FDR had to deal with prior to World War II presented nothing exactly like today’s challenges.
Had Biden entered the White House with anything like the political capital and congressional strength FDR and LBJ enjoyed, then comparisons to either might be in order. But at this stage the long-term political implications of his presidency are as unpredictable as a COVID-19 variant. Let’s give the past year the benefit of a lot more perspective. And for sure, let’s give Biden a full term to build a legacy we can justly assess.