A liberal president enters the White House in a time of national crisis. He campaigned as a moderate but soon reveals his intent to govern from the left of the center-left. His bold agenda has plenty of fans among journalists and academics who celebrate the expansion of the welfare state. They write stories and deliver soundbites likening the new chief executive to FDR. The end of Reaganism, they say, is at hand.
I’m referring, of course, to President Barack Obama. Shortly after his election in 2008, Time magazine portrayed him as Dr. New Deal, complete with fedora and cigarette holder. “It would seem that Obama has been studying the 1932 Great Depression campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt,” wrote E.J. Dionne in his syndicated column. “Conservatism is Dead,” announced the New Republic. “It has been that kind of presidency,” gushed Jon Meacham in 2009. “Barack Obama, moving as he wishes to move, and the world bending itself to him.”
Take a moment to recover from that last bit of purple prose. Then recall that two years after Obama’s victory, Republicans won the House. In 2014, Republicans kept the House and won the Senate. And two years after that, Republicans won complete control of the federal government. Conservatism didn’t die—the New Republic did. (It’s been reborn as a monthly.)
Now the same wonks and historians who compared Obama to the architect of managerial liberalism downplay his tenure in office as overly cautious, modest, and risk-averse. They’ve settled on a new, new FDR: Joe Biden. And Biden is ready to play the part. Even if it means risking Democratic control of Congress.
Biden met recently at the White House with a group of historians who, according to Axios, share his view that “It is time to go even bigger and faster than anyone expected. If that means chucking the filibuster and bipartisanship, so be it.” Biden’s “closest analogues,” Michael Beschloss told the news outlet, are FDR and LBJ. E.J. Dionne says Biden represents “a new disposition through which pragmatic forms of government activism add up to a quiet political revolution.” And Biden “loves the growing narrative that he’s bolder and bigger-thinking than President Obama,” writes Mike Allen. No doubt he does.
You would think that, in the midst of all the pandering and praise, the scholars who talked to Biden might have provided him some actual historical perspective. Every president Biden is said to recall, including Reagan, had to endure numerous setbacks, crises, unforced errors, and unanticipated consequences of their own policies. By 1938, the New Deal was exhausted, the economy hadn’t recovered from the Depression, and FDR won his final two terms largely on the basis of his international stature. LBJ’s landslide in 1964 was followed by a shellacking in 1966 and the collapse of the Democratic coalition in 1968. The GOP lost 26 seats in the House in 1982, forfeited control of the Senate in 1986, and when he left office Reagan handed his vice president a giant deficit, the Savings and Loan debacle, and a zealous special prosecutor.
The historians urging Biden to go big on policy aren’t analysts. They are partisan cheerleaders. If they stepped back, they would see that Biden is weaker than the presidents he admires and that vulnerable Democrats are warning the majority against overreach.
The Biden team gave Axios four reasons the president is ready to ditch the filibuster and push through a $3 trillion infrastructure and green energy bill, changes to election law in the “For the People Act,” and possibly an immigration amnesty. Biden has (1) “full party control of Congress, and a short window to go big,” (2) “party activists” are “egging him on,” (3) “he has strong gathering economic winds at his back,” and (4) “he’s popular in polls.”
But the same evidence could also be read as an argument for caution and restraint. Biden has less support in Congress than any of the presidents he emulates. (Reagan never controlled the House, but often had a majority of conservative Democrats plus Republicans.) At the moment, Biden’s party has 219 seats in the House and 50 in the Senate—meaning he can lose just two votes in the lower chamber and none in the upper one. It’s one thing to enact significant legislation on a partisan majority. It’s something else to enact such legislation on a partisan majority of one during a time when a positive COVID test upsets the whip count.
Nor is following “party activists” a certain route to political success. Economic winds change direction. And while Biden is popular, his disapproval rating in the January Gallup poll was second only to Donald Trump’s. Negative partisanship drives Biden to steamroll the Republicans. It also exposes him to political rebuke.
Some Democrats are beginning to express qualms with various aspects of Biden’s approach. Maine Democrat Jared Golden was the only member of his party to vote against Biden’s American Rescue Plan. Henry Cuellar of Texas was among the first congressmen to draw attention to the crisis on the southern border. Filemon Vela, also of Texas, announced his retirement the other day, a few months after his vote share dropped to 55 percent from 60 percent in 2018. Several House Democrats have said they disagree with Nancy Pelosi’s outrageous plot to expel Iowa Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks and replace her with Rita Hart, who lost by six votes last year. And West Virginia senator Joe Manchin has yet to cosponsor the election bill at the center of the Democrats’ campaign to end the filibuster.
In these early days, Biden’s presidency has been less a transformation than a continuation of the partisan stalemate that has existed since the end of the Cold War. Parties win elections, misread electoral victories as ideological endorsements, overreach, and pay for it at the polls. The Democrats for whom the bill will come due first are well aware of this dynamic. They may not be as good on television as Jon Meacham or Michael Beschloss, but they have plenty of insight into the aspirations and concerns of swing voters. Biden may want to have them over to the East Room. Before they are out of work.