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The Biden-LBJ Comparisons Are Overblown

The president will have to accomplish a lot more to be truly “transformational.”

President Joe Biden speaks at a podium.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Pundits have gotten kind of goofy about Joe Biden recently. After the president signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act on March 11, David Brooks called Biden a “transformational president,” while some on the left said he had ushered in the dawn of a new economic era. Opinion pieces in The New York TimesNewsweek, and Vox have recently cast Biden in a long line of U.S. presidents who expanded the country’s welfare state, comparing his passage of “FDR-sized legislation” to the domestic policy achievements of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who supported and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and whose Great Society programs fortified our safety net in ways, both positive and negative, that live on today.

The thing about FDR and LBJ is that their signature transformations to the U.S. government occurred in response to world historic crises and roiling protests. Covid-19’s shock to the economy is certainly a crisis. But if Biden’s to go down in history as a transformational president, his legacy will need to include an unprecedented response to the biggest crisis facing his administration and the world: climate change. Though there’s some cause for optimism, it’s much too soon to say whether he’ll rise to the occasion. And past presidents certainly don’t offer easy blueprints. 

Two things can be true at the same time. The American Rescue Plan is phenomenally important and arguably—as The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie has argued—the most aggressive piece of anti-poverty legislation since the War on Poverty. Expanded unemployment insurance, checks, and child tax credits, while temporary, will deliver considerable and much-needed relief to people around the country. It might just help Democrats stave off a midterm defeat in 2022. Despite his somewhat centrist, conciliatory predilections, Biden prioritized relief over bipartisanship and jammed the package through reconciliation; the austerians and deficit hawks who dominated Obama-era fiscal policy debates after the Great Recession have been firmly relegated to the sidelines. 

That doesn’t necessarily make the American Rescue Plan groundbreaking. U.S. governments have long boosted growth in the wake of deep recessions, and spent lots of money to do so. They have overcome pandemics. They have navigated major economic transitions, albeit generally in disastrous ways that entrenched racial and economic inequality. They’ve even—in the case of the Dust Bowl—managed to overcome ecological crises. They have never liquidated the extractive industry business model that half a century of public policy has been devoted to supporting, nor helped rally the world to do the same. They have not severed the stubborn ties between economic growth and emissions. They have not changed the energetic basis of the economy in time to stop it from rendering the planet uninhabitable. For as long as there has been electricity, the U.S. has never run its massive economy on anything other than fossil fuels.

The American Rescue Plan may yet prove to be a stepping stone to the sorts of genuinely transformational changes needed to take on the climate crisis: Dismantling austerity has always been a prerequisite to climate action. But the former hasn’t yet translated into the latter. Compare this most recent package, for example, to the comparatively paltry American Recovery Reinvestment Act—signed by Obama in February 2009—which put $90 billion toward clean energy, mostly in the form of tax credits, loan guarantees, and research funding. The American Rescue Plan features no such thing. 

It could be months before an infrastructure package sees the light of day. Whether it’ll include anything related to climate is far from certain. Top Democrats, with White House support, are reportedly prioritizing another package first that they hope to vote on in early April: one aimed at countering China’s geopolitical power. Reportedly the package will include a range of efforts to rebuilt domestic manufacturing, modeled partially on the Endless Frontier Act Senator Chuck Schumer previously introduced with Republican Todd Young. Amid a disturbing wave of hate crimes against Asian Americans, Douglas Eakins of the American Action Forum told The Washington Post last week that “hating China is a big bipartisan thing, and Schumer has the opportunity to take ownership of being against China.” Subsequent reporting has seemed to bear that out. As Virginia Senator Tim Kaine told Politico, “Even if we had criticisms occasionally about Trump’s strategy on China, we didn’t criticize his motive. We thought, ‘He sees the challenge the right way.’”

Aside from the troubling ways that egging on such hawkish bipartisanship against a foreign threat could fuel anti-Asian sentiments, it’s not clear what doing so will actually get Democrats in the long run. Liberals looking to outflank Republicans on immigration in the 1990s, after all, mainly helped to drag that conversation firmly into the territory of the nativist right. 

To his credit, White House climate envoy John Kerry has repeatedly urged for a productive relationship with China on climate. His colleagues are taking a different approach. In advance of U.S-China talks kicking off Thursday in Anchorage, Alaska, Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed to Congress that they arenot a strategic dialogue. There’s no intent at this point for a series of follow-on engagements.” His first trip abroad this week has been spent bolstering alliances in the Pacific to counter China’s “coercion and aggression,” fulfilling his desire to reinstall the U.S. firmly at the top of a rules-based international order. As he said in a speech this month,

China is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system, all the rules, values and relationships that make the world work the way we want it to, because it ultimately serves the interests and reflects the values of the American people.

The U.S. delegation to the World Trade Organization, meanwhile, has continued to block proposals there to suspend intellectual property enforcements on vaccines, even though abandoning patent enforcement for them could speed up distribution and save lives the world over. All of these moves run against the kind of cooperative diplomacy that experts say will be crucial for meeting the challenges of rapid decarbonization. 

As author Peter Beinart recently pointed out in his newsletter, this hawkish-by-default approach to foreign policy could make comparisons to LBJ chillingly accurate. Great Society programs took root amid a horrific war in East Asia, the full brutality and illegality of which is only now reaching the light of day for many Westerners. That’s not to say Biden is on the brink of mounting new land invasions. But his foreign policy appointees don’t seem interested in scrapping the twentieth-century imperialist playbook so that the U.S. can make collaborative climate policy its main priority going forward. “On domestic policy,” Beinart writes, “progressives don’t just sit at the table, they sometimes sit at its head. On foreign policy, they’re largely out in the hall.” 

Confronting the climate crisis will require the U.S. not just to engage strategically with China, the world’s biggest polluter, but also to help dismantle the thicket of rules that protect corporate polluters, including those inscribed in a raft of bilateral and multilateral agreements. The U.S. continuing to militantly safeguard intellectual property for clean energy, as it has with vaccines, will stymy energy transitions around the world. And without widespread debt relief and financial support, developing countries with sizable fossil fuel reserves will have every incentive to drill for the black gold under their feet. 

There is no way to disentangle foreign and domestic policy, particularly when it comes to climate. The Biden administration’s talk of rebuilding domestic manufacturing with electric vehicle and wind turbine factories, for example, promises to return the U.S. to its former glory as an industrial powerhouse. It also risks making emissions reductions secondary to an industrial policy loaded up with anxieties about national decline. America’s ego is understandably a bit bruised at the moment. It’s had among the most disastrous handlings of Covid-19 on the planet, outshone dramatically by comparatively smaller and less wealthy nations, as well as by China. With little progress to show so far on climate, the administration is pitching that as a crisis it can solve. 

Green industrial policy is of course very much needed in the U.S.: There’s a hell of a lot of stuff to build, and plenty of work to do electrifying everything. Healthy competition toward greening among major polluting economies—including with China—is certainly welcome, especially insofar as it can improve supply chains and marshal investments toward decarbonizing sectors like concrete and steel. 

Foregrounding green nationalism, though, can obscure the fact that there’s an actual enemy to be confronted: The fossil fuel industry’s core business model, already sputtering, needs to be rapidly wound down in a way that prevents catastrophic political feedback loops (layoffs, economic disruption) that will polarize people against climate action. Given how heavily many regional economies rely on the fossil fuel industry, that means dramatic expansions of the welfare state to support local tax bases and provide jobs, not narrowly targeted transition and retraining programs. And it means making sure that the typically low-paid, already government-subsidized care work that proliferates in towns that experience economic transitions can provide the foundations for a dignified life. Confronting China won’t do that, or fix the myriad other domestic troubles plaguing the U.S.

Historical comparisons are a mixed bag. Despite its well-documented limitations, what made the New Deal remarkable was that it did something the country had never done before. With rising unemployment and fascism on the march, the Roosevelt administration created a welfare state virtually whole cloth, keen to avoid the fate of European nations that handed power over to tyrants as their economies tanked. The U.S. had never mounted massive federal relief programs before or battled Nazis, let alone both at the same time. The New Deal order, to note, made massive concessions to demagoguery: Besides striking a Devil’s Bargain with Jim Crow in the South, Roosevelt during World War II sent an estimated 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps. As historian Elizabeth Hinton has detailed, the Great Society itself created the foundations for modern policing and mass incarceration—ignoring the more expansive, broadly social democratic recommendations of the Kerner Commission. In the climate crisis, Biden now faces a challenge at least as big as the one that faced FDR and LBJ, all the while needing to correct their mistakes. 

If Biden wants to be transformative president—taking on the existential crisis of his day—he’ll have to break not just with Obama-era deficit hawks and Clinton’s war on welfare, but with much older ideas of putting America before the world. The U.S. has struggled to mobilize itself toward egalitarian ends domestically without some foreign threat. Progress at home can’t repeat history’s mistakes, or be premised on either cheap oil or conflicts and emissions abroad. Biden will have to work toward building something fundamentally new. If he’s anything like FDR or LBJ, he also won’t do that unless there are throngs of people in the streets making him.