You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Joe Biden Isn’t Close to Being a Historic President Yet

It’s not clear that the president even has a plan to pass the kind of legislation that would earn him comparisons to FDR.

Joe Biden listens during a conference call in the Oval Office.
Erin Scott/Getty Images

Although we’re still less than three months into the Biden administration, there’s already an eagerness all around to characterize and define his presidency. This is understandable on a psychological level⁠—we live in harrowing and uncertain times; the American people and opinion leaders are trying to understand where the country is going and how quickly we might get there. And that’s led to a grasping for historical analogues to which Biden and his agenda might be compared.

The most obvious point of reference given the scale of the crisis the country has been thrust into, and the reference point Biden himself seized upon during the campaign, has been Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And on Monday, The New York Times published a column arguing that Biden’s agenda has already measured up to his accomplishments. “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,” the author Jonathan Alter wrote. Biden, who “sees that Reagan-era market capitalism cannot alone” rebuild the country, has shown a progressive way forward in the American Rescue Plan and the American Jobs Plan. “He is the first president since Lyndon Johnson who can rightly be called F.D.R.’s heir,” Alter concludes. “Soon we’ll know if he squanders that legacy—or builds on it.”

Alter’s column, aimed primarily at framing the American Jobs Plan as a successor to the New Deal, succeeds mostly in illustrating the size of the gap between them. As he writes, the New Deal created, with the help of large-scale direct public employment, more than 20 million jobs and led to the construction of “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.” The $2 trillion in infrastructure spending over the next 10 years Biden has laid out in the Jobs Plan, while significant, obviously isn’t going to have a comparable impact on the American landscape. On Sunday, Lindsay Koshgarian offered some valuable perspective at Truthout: The annual cost of Biden’s infrastructure plan will be dwarfed by the amount the government spends each year on military contractors alone.

Naturally, another factor that should complicate comparisons between the New Deal and Biden’s infrastructure plan is the fact that Biden’s infrastructure plan hasn’t passed yet and will surely be pruned and trimmed before it’s sent to the White House for Biden’s signature—an outcome that, while likely, still isn’t assured even through the reconciliation process Democrats will use to avoid a filibuster. The idea that Biden merits comparison to FDR anyway illustrates the liminal space Biden has started to occupy in Democratic hopes: as both a president just on the cusp of implementing a transformative agenda and a president who should be credited for already having done so. It shouldn’t take a cynic to recognize that he’s clearly neither—until the disposition of the administration changes and both the structural challenges to the Democratic agenda and the state of the right are addressed, Biden will be a president in limbo.

It can be conceded that the optimists are onto something: We really can see evidence of leftward movement among the policy experts populating the Biden administration and within the Democratic Party more broadly. An understanding that big and expensive government outlays can be made to work for the American people shaped the American Rescue Plan—a large expansion of welfare that abandoned inane and immoral Beltway dogmas about work and debt to provide more direct benefits to American families, along with generous public spending in other areas. This, combined with the provisions of Biden’s infrastructure plan and evidence that the administration is actively seeking input from progressives, places Biden meaningfully to the left of his Democratic predecessor.

But while there have been real changes in perspective that have already been borne out in the Biden administration’s policies, we’re still talking about an administration that has passed exactly one (1) major piece of legislation—a “rescue” bill whose most pathbreaking provisions, including the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, are temporary, and which were sold as responses to a national emergency that will, fingers crossed, soon come to an end. Although Biden has said he supports making the expanded tax credit permanent, it’s not actually clear that it will be significantly extended in the upcoming “American Families Plan.” And as HuffPost reported Monday, Republican state legislatures are waiting, absent further Democratic action, to pounce on and gut unemployment benefits once the federal supplements extended in the Rescue Plan expire.

Those are fights that can and might be won, but there’s no real reason to characterize the administration in a way that presupposes those victories are foregone conclusions—particularly given that Biden seems poised to move more cautiously in general on spending, going forward. On Tuesday, White House Council of Economic Advisers member Jared Bernstein made a notable distinction between proposals that would and would not require explicit pay-fors in the future. “When you’re talking about the relief plan, a temporary measure, it’s perfectly fine for that to be deficit-financed,” he said. “But when you’re talking about longer-term investments—in water, in bridges, in standing up key sectors that don’t exist, in childcare, helping people to get into the job market—the sustainability, the permanence of those sectors requires robust pay-fors.”

This is a highly contestable point. With climate policy in particular, massive, rapid, and largely debt-financed investments simply have to be made, and we probably have room for more debt spending in other areas. But Bernstein’s statement effectively conceded that the remainder of Biden’s agenda will be constrained by how easily and significantly he might raise taxes on corporations and the very wealthy given his promise not to raise income taxes on Americans making under $400,000 a year. Those will be difficult waters to tread even among Democrats in Congress, even with reconciliation as a legislative vehicle.

And for all it says about how Biden might fundamentally shift what Americans believe government can and should do, it’s noteworthy that Alter’s column contains no words to that effect from Biden himself, who Alter concedes is “no great communicator.” But Roosevelt was: He used his rhetorical gifts to encourage Americans to look beyond the immediate emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II toward a future made possible by a different kind of government from the one they had been used to⁠—not, as he said in a 1936 campaign address, a “see-nothing, do-nothing Government” or “government by organized money,” but a government capable of securing a set of basic economic rights in perpetuity. And Roosevelt acknowledged that project had and would continue to earn him dogged enemies. “They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred,” he famously said in that address. “I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.”

Biden has never said anything like this, and perhaps he needn’t in order to succeed. But the declaration of some larger post-Covid mission would probably bring a sense of direction to an administration that seems, despite all the confidence its boosters have projected onto it, fairly adrift. In his column, Alter praises Biden for having pursued a “smart legislative strategy” thus far. It’s actually not obvious that Biden has a legislative strategy at all beyond cramming as much spending as possible into however few reconciliation bills the Senate parliamentarian will allow, while shoving other proposals into oncoming traffic to see whether Republicans run them over.

It was speculated that the For the People Act would be an early flashpoint. But this week Senate Democrats offered a hate crimes bill as a lamb for slaughter instead. “Democrats are daring the 50-vote minority to block the modest legislation amid a spike in hate incidents against Asian Americans during the pandemic,” Politico reported Monday. “While the GOP has yet to make a conference-wide decision, Wednesday’s vote could serve as a data point for Democratic senators seeking to persuade more of their colleagues to scrap the 60-vote threshold that has left some of President Joe Biden’s most progressive priorities to languish in the upper chamber.” Now it seems plausible that Republicans will amend and pass the bill after all. Has the episode illustrated or changed anything about the prospects for the rest of Biden’s agenda? Not really. And so far, all the talk about moving to a talking filibuster, which wouldn’t in itself eliminate the 60-vote threshold for passing ordinary legislation, has been, well, just talk.

While Biden might not be a great communicator, it should be said that the primary strategic innovations the administration has made thus far have been rhetorical. Take the infrastructure push. Because there’s no hope of passing anything significant outside reconciliation under current conditions, Biden has cannily expanded the definition of “infrastructure” to justify—to moderates on the Hill and any voters who might care—tethering social spending on items like eldercare to broadly popular physical infrastructure projects in one of the few reconciliation bills Congress might be allowed to pass. It’s one of the rare political ploys that also happens to be justifiable in substance: The administration is entirely right to insist that keeping the country in working order requires basic investments in far more than our roads and bridges. In fact, Biden’s definition should be expanded to encompass even more proposals than the administration has put on the table.

But Biden’s on shakier ground in his effort to redefine “bipartisanship.” On Sunday, The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker collected some of the administration’s attempts to suggest it now means winning public support from members of both parties outside of Washington. “If you looked up ‘bipartisan’ in the dictionary, I think it would say support from Republicans and Democrats,” Biden adviser Anita Dunn told the Post. “It doesn’t say the Republicans have to be in Congress.”

Now everyone knows this isn’t what “bipartisan” meant until all of about five minutes ago, and it’s worth asking how far the argument might plausibly be taken given that one can find some amount of Republican support for just about anything. In September, Pew Research found that 15 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners—a subgroup that includes several million Americans⁠—support single-payer health care. Should we refer to it from now on as a bipartisan objective? Would it make single-payer substantially easier to pass if we did?

The fundamental obstacles to the passage of Democratic, or progressive, or left-wing legislation are structural, material, and ideological, and rhetoric that doesn’t do anything to dislodge them, assuming it’s possible for rhetoric to do so at all, isn’t going to fundamentally change our political situation. But the redefinition of “bipartisanship” will probably work for Biden’s evidently primary goal, which is to reconcile our political reality—a Democratic government that will have to pass most of its agenda on a partisan basis if it passes it at all⁠—with a load of nonsense that Biden has encouraged the American people to believe about how politics and governance must inevitably work.

But at some point, the jig is going to be up. The immediate problem facing the Biden administration and the country is that the rules and design of the United States Senate make passage of most of the Democratic agenda functionally impossible. The moves required to fix this problem, if the administration is genuinely interested in fixing it, will rightly appear to many Americans as highly divisive and partisan maneuvers. The strategic path to accomplishing them remains highly unclear; it’s not at all obvious, as many seem to believe, that the problem will resolve itself once a bill of sufficient importance is on the line.

All told, it might be time to ask the president to give us a frank update on how the battle for the soul of our nation is proceeding. Biden repeatedly assured the American people that the right would be more amenable to negotiation and reason with Trump’s departure from the scene. Instead, the right is getting worse. Culture-war nonsense has metastasized further into state legislative attacks on the transgender community and our universities. The Republican assault on voting rights is being renewed across the country and will soon be followed by another potentially catastrophic season of partisan gerrymandering. And the most prominent stewards of right-wing ideology resemble out-and-out white nationalists just as closely as they did when Trump was in office. In an interview last week, Tucker Carlson said that the Democratic Party had embarked on a strategy to replace the current electorate with “more obedient voters from the Third World.” After an outcry, he doubled down on Monday’s episode of his show. “Demographic change is the key to the Democratic Party’s political ambitions,” he said. “In order to win and maintain power, Democrats plan to change the population of the country.”

There’s no consensus to be forged with this: Bipartisan compromise with a right whose voters are animated by this rhetoric is simply a path toward cementing minority rule. This is already plain to honest and close surveyors of our political system, and one must imagine it will soon be plain to Joe Biden, if it isn’t already. All of this would be good material for a Fireside Chat about democracy and the hard and often divisive choices leaders are required to make in order to achieve progress. Joe Biden is not going to deliver it.

It is fortunate, then, that we really do have a rising and increasingly influential left in this country, one that didn’t grow to its present size and prominence by pulling its punches and grading Democratic politicians on a generous curve. Noise is already being made about the areas the administration’s policies have fallen short or raised justified suspicions—immigration and refugee policy, foreign policy, climate policy, criminal justice—and more probably ought to be made on the economy. While Biden has made and promised admirable investments, the seeds of a retreat into fiscal orthodoxy are already being sown, and his domestic agenda will be woefully incomplete if welfare spending isn’t paired with actual redistributions of power to the American worker. We should be asking the administration serious questions about how it intends to pass the PRO Act, as well as the rest of Biden’s major legislative proposals. And those who are merely anxious about how large Biden’s legacy will appear in the history books should rest easy: This will be an unfathomably consequential presidency and a dramatic turning point in the trajectory of our country and planet, whether Biden has serious answers to offer us or not.