In his speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination on 20 August 2020 Joe Biden referenced Franklin D. Roosevelt’s success in rescuing depression-hit America through the New Deal as his lodestar for rescuing a pandemic-hit nation through activist government. Since he became America’s 46th president, commentators have made frequent reference to his historical parallels to the 32nd president. As his first Hundred Days in office comes round on 30 April, there has been considerable analysis of how he measures up to his hero, whose promotion of 15 major pieces of legislation in the Hundred Days of 1933 did much to establish the modern presidency and create a benchmark on which all his successors have been judged. Former vice president Al Gore, in particular, has acclaimed Biden’s early tenure as being the most effective since FDR’s because of his success in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, accelerating the vaccine roll-out, and promoting enactment of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Package to relieve the social and economic effects of the pandemic.
Interesting as such FDR comparisons are, we must question whether they are really useful for understanding the Biden presidency and its challenges. Each president faced a different order of crisis. FDR had to deal with the worst economic collapse in American history that put 25 percent of the labour force out of work, devastated the farm economy, and brought the banking system to the verge of collapse. Though he did much to alleviate economic distress, put in place much needed socio-economic and institutional reforms, and established an American welfare state, this was not enough to bring an end to the Great Depression. It took World War 2 to put the American economy back on its feet after a decade of continuing high unemployment. Biden does not face anything remotely so challenging on the economic front. All the indicators are that his stimulus bill and its Trumpian predecessor have put the US economy on a strong recovery track that will restore its vitality by the end of 2021 and help the global economy bounce back into the bargain. Absent serious new COVID strains that are resistant to the vaccines now available, America’s pandemic should also be in retreat over the same time period.
Despite caveats against simple comparisons, there are parallels that help us understand the Biden presidency in light of the Roosevelt one. Firstly, FDR’s New Deal accustomed the majority of Americans to regard big government in positive light as the guarantor of national prosperity, social welfare, regulation of private enterprise to enhance fairness, and the rights of hitherto disadvantaged groups. This laid the basis of a new political order that underwrote liberal ascendancy and Democratic party domination of government for the next half-century. That broad consensus was undermined by the failure of government to deal with runaway inflation in the 1970s, the energy shortages of the era, and the sense that America was entering a new age of limits. This set the scene for Ronald Reagan to proclaim the free market as the solution to America’s ills when he became president. His anti-statist message was encapsulated in his 1981 Inaugural Address assertion: ‘In the present crisis, government is no longer the solution to our problems; government is the problem.’ Reagan launched a new political order based on conservative ideas of free markets, small government, and low taxes. Even Democratic presidents now had to be cautious in asserting the need for government activism and to borrow from the rhetoric of Reaganism, as when Bill Clinton proclaimed in 1996 that ‘the age of big government is over’.
However, Biden and his fellow Democrats may have a historic opportunity to launch a new political cycle. If his administration is successful in dealing with the pandemic, renewing the economy, and providing leadership in addressing long-term problems, most notably climate change and inequality, it has a chance of restoring majority belief in the benefits of an active and compassionate federal government. This could add up to a twenty-first century version of the New Deal – but the Biden presidency faces a huge political problem that is different from anything encountered by FDR. Roosevelt was elected by a landslide in 1932 and carried huge Democratic majorities into both chambers of Congress on his coat-tails. Despite the pandemic and the state of the economy, Biden barely won 51 percent of the popular vote in 2020 and his party obtained wafer-thin majorities in Congress. Furthermore, thanks to Donald Trump, a majority of Republican voters believed that Biden’s election entailed massive voter fraud, a patently ridiculous allegation but a deeply held belief for its adherents. Accordingly, the 2020 election does not appear to be the kind of transformational moment for American politics comparable to the 1932 and 1980 elections.
A new Washington Post-ABC opinion survey on Biden’s first Hundred Days in office points to the challenges he faces in delivering his ambitious agenda for change. He has a 52 percent approval rating and a 42 percent disapproval rating for the way he is handling his job as president. This is the lowest net approval rating at the hundred-day mark for any president other than Trump since polling began. There is also a strong partisan gap in the numbers: only 13 percent of Republican identifiers give Biden positive ratings compared to 90 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of Independents. Furthermore, 53 percent of all respondents said they were ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ concerned that Biden will do too much to increase the size of government. Additionally, fully 60 percent of respondents (including 40 percent of Democratic identifiers) want Biden to compromise with the congressional Republicans to get his legislation enacted – a tall order as the other side does not show any inclination to do so.
All this indicates that Biden’s presidency operates amid the politics of polarization that has afflicted America since the Great Recession of 2007-09. His best hopes of success lie in reaping the political rewards from restoring the economy and suppressing the pandemic, but time is not on his side. The Republicans are gambling that they can recapture both chambers of Congress in the 2022 elections in accordance with the historical pattern that the president’s party loses seats in the midterms. If they achieve that goal, the Biden agenda of renewal and reform is dead in the water. On the other hand, Democratic success in defying the historical trend could offer a clearer mandate for change than the recent presidential election. Pundits conventionally presented the 2020 race as America’s most important election in two generations, but its implications may not become clear until the 2022 midterm votes are counted.
Written by Pr. Iwan Morgan
Pr. Iwan Morgan is Emeritus Professor of US History in the UCL Institute of the Americas. He is the author of Reagan: American Icon (2020 paperback ed.) and he has a forthcoming book, FDR: Transformational President in Depression and War, both published by I.B. Tauris.