Joe Biden wants to be a transformative president.
He made that clear on Wednesday, when he laid out a sweeping domestic agenda that would constitute “the largest jobs plan since World War II” in his first speech to a joint session of Congress. He argued that the $6 trillion in federal spending, tax increases and regulatory changes was simply a matter of common sense whose time had come. And he declared he would not let his opposition drag out negotiations so long that his proposals failed.
“[T]he rest of the world is not waiting for us,” Biden said. “I just want to be clear: From my perspective, doing nothing is not an option.”
Biden’s goal is to turn the page on the lingering era of conservative governance inaugurated by President Ronald Reagan in 1980 and complete some of President Barack Obama’ goals. Biden called upon the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the only president he named in his speech on Wednesday, as a symbol of the challenge he believes he faces and the resolution he hopes to achieve.
But Biden faces a different political reality than FDR. Transforming U.S. politics has been done before, but not easily, and sweeping plans like Roosevelt’s New Deal are increasingly difficult to achieve in the modern age.
If Biden is going to achieve his ambition of changing American politics, he will need to actually master the Reagan-era interests that quashed Obama’s plans.
Obama To Biden
Biden has worked to avoid replicating the failures of the Obama administration.
For example, Obama’s 2009 stimulus package was negotiated down to $800 billion to obtain three Republican votes in the Senate to avoid a filibuster and gain the imprimatur of bipartisan support. It wound up being not only too small, but also disbursed stimulus funds in ways that people barely noticed, like a payroll tax cut.
Biden, on the other hand, went big with his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, the American Rescue Plan. The plan not only targeted its monetary distribution to individuals directly through checks, as opposed to invisible payroll tax cuts, it also expanded the welfare state through the child tax credit.
Biden’s decisions aren’t just based on what went wrong in Obama’s first term, however. He’s also clearly mirrored what he sees as having worked in Obama’s second. In particular, Biden’s efforts to turn the page on the past echo the rhetoric that Obama first deployed in his 2012 reelection bid.
“For much of the last century, we have been having the same argument with folks who keep peddling some version of trickle-down economics,” Obama said at an Associated Press luncheon in April 2012.
Obama repeatedly sought to repudiate the Reagan era economic orthodoxy and impose his own new frame throughout his second term.
“Reality has rendered its judgment,” Obama told the City Club of Cleveland in March 2014. “Trickle-down economics doesn’t work, and middle-class economics does.”
This is the same language that Biden used in his speech before Congress, casting aside Reagan-era “trickle-down economics” and talking about wanting to “grow the economy from the bottom and the middle out.”
During his second term, Obama took executive action — particularly on foreign policy — to resolve tired policy commitments from the 20th century in a way that he did not in his first term. These included the multilateral deal to halt Iran’s nuclear program and create a new relationship between the U.S. and Iran, and beginning to normalize relations with Cuba.
Obama also sought to impose new commitments on American politics that would serve as the basis for a new political order in the signing of the Paris Agreement, a global accord among nations to reduce carbon emissions in order to forestall the damage of anthropogenic climate change.
In Congress, Senate Democrats finally took it upon themselves in 2013 to change the chamber’s filibuster rules to surmount an unprecedented blockade of Obama’s lower court judicial nominees that Republicans had imposed.
These all signaled an effort by Obama to be the transformative president that many thought he would be when he took office during the Great Recession in 2009. But he was not able to achieve any kind of resolution.
It wasn’t just that Obama was too late in his bid to move away from the conservative Reagan era or that he was hamstrung by a recalcitrant Congress. It was also that he was too wedded to establishment politics and too bogged down by its interests. He stacked his administration with economic advisers and regulators who had no interest in turning the page on the Reagan-era. And he directed too much time and attention to grappling with the national debt, which his opponents so deftly used against him.
Obama was simply in office at the wrong moment in political time.
Biden, on the other hand, believes he is at the right moment in political time. This is evident in his repeated invocations of Roosevelt’s memory. Biden sees himself in the same political time in which FDR found himself in 1933. He believes that he has a warrant to repudiate the existing regime and reconstruct a new one.
This is the vision of American presidential politics that the political scientist Stephen Skowronek outlines in his famous 1993 book, “The Politics That Presidents Make.” Skowronek posits that American presidential politics move in phases beginning with a reconstructive president who sets the nation on a new course. This reconstructive president is followed by heirs to their orthodoxy, until, ultimately, the orthodoxy of the reconstruction no longer fits the politics of the present and a new reconstructor comes along.
Skowronek’s reconstructive presidents are Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and, most recently, Ronald Reagan. They all swept into office with a call to repudiate the existing political arrangements and create a new order that would regenerate the nation by returning it to its first principles.
Among our modern reconstructive presidents, Roosevelt promised his “New Deal” would restore the country “to its ancient truths” in his first inaugural, while Reagan promised a “crusade to make America great again.”
The original reconstructive president, Jefferson, remade the nation’s political order to such a degree that his political opposition, the Federalists, ceased to be a political party. As the author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had a level of legitimacy that was hard to match ― when he said that Alexander Hamilton and his Federalists had led the country astray from its first principles, people believed him.
Reconstructive presidents have faced progressively harder times changing the course of the nation since Jefferson. It is not just their distance from the legitimacy he obtained from direct experience in the founding of the country. It’s also simply harder for a president to make that level of change in the nation, because of the constitutional separation of powers and the expansion of interests, governing structures and relationships that are difficult to overturn.
Roosevelt could not overthrow the entirety of the private industrial system that had sprung up following the Civil War. Nor could he pack the Supreme Court or purge the Southern conservatives from his party. But he was miraculously able to create an entirely new and permanent bureaucracy to manage, regulate and oversee industrial life in service of his desire to provide for a “broadening conception of social justice.”
What Roosevelt created, Reagan aimed to overturn. “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” Reagan declared in his first inaugural address. But the interests, systems, programs and warrants that Roosevelt and the presidents who followed in his footsteps created or inspired proved too entrenched to remove.
Reagan still succeeded in rewiring the national order in other ways. He reoriented the American political economy to favor the rich and installed Wall Street as its manager with a massive tax and spending cut package ― the first major bill passed through budget reconciliation and a reorientation of the federal bureaucracy. These changes — specifically Reagan’s tax cuts, which were not matched by his desired level of spending reductions — created a warped political system that has been spinning out of control ever since.
“Failing to actually dislodge the commitments of the old order, the Reagan administration created a monumental governing problem that would keep them suppressed long into the future,” Skowronek writes.
At the heart of this monumental governing problem is what Skowronek calls Reagan’s “most prominent legacy”: the national debt. Since Reagan was incapable of ending many of the spending commitments of the New Deal system (Social Security specifically), his regressive tax cuts favoring the rich blew a hole in the deficit. This national debt became its own entrenched interest that has bedeviled every president since.
The conservative movement that Reagan brought to Washington on his wings would follow his administration in constant pursuit of the final catharsis needed by the full enactment of its agenda and a final defeat of the New Deal. From Pat Buchanan’s 1992 primary challenge of George H.W. Bush to Newt Gingrich’s House speakership to Donald Trump’s presidency, this conservative ouroboros would continue to eat itself in search of the purest form of conservatism to bring about this final victory.
This dynamic became one key animating factor in the hyperpolarization of American politics, a process that has largely been driven by the Republican Party. If Biden wants to enact change, he’ll have to find a way to make it irrelevant.
A Biden Reconstruction?
Obama remained stuck in the Reagan-era political order throughout his presidency.
The national debt, in particular, was a constant source of trouble for Obama. He accepted the frame that the national debt was a serious concern, and repeatedly promised to reduce annual deficits and the national debt over time. Reconstructive presidents “typically exercise a disarming control over political definitions,” Skowronek writes. Obama was stuck in the old definitions.
Similarly, Obama sought bipartisan governance in the face of massive opposition and calls from his left to pass legislation through reconciliation or eliminate the filibuster. The stimulus bill shrank to gain Republican votes. Then-Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), empowered by the White House to pursue health care reform, spent months seeking Republican support for Obama’s plan that they would never provide. And Obama watched as Congress squashed much of his first-term agenda with GOP filibusters or internal party opposition.
“Obama sketched an outline of what an alternative to Reaganism looks like, but since he couldn’t dislodge the orthodoxy that alternative has been pushed off into the distance,” Skowronek told The Nation in 2016.
Biden is attempting to pick up where Obama left off. And while Biden echoes the pursuits and rhetoric of Obama’s second term, his departures are more important.
Most consequentially, Biden spends little to no time worrying about the national debt. In his first address to Congress in 2009, Obama spent a significant portion of his speech on his plans to reduce the national debt, a subject he returned to throughout his presidency. On Wednesday, Biden said not one word about it.
Instead, Biden has leaned on a growing chorus of economists who believe that deficit spending is necessary to achieve full employment, higher wages and greater economic growth.
“Every major economist thinks we should be investing in deficit spending in order to generate economic growth,” Biden said on Jan. 9.
Similarly, Biden has attempted to redefine bipartisanship as public approval for a policy from registered Republican voters, rather than the ability to get GOP support for a bill in Congress.
“Everybody said I had no bipartisan support,” Biden said about his COVID-19 relief package on March 31. “The overwhelming bipartisan support were Republican — registered Republican voters.”
That package passed through Congress under the budget reconciliation process, which cannot be filibustered. This is the same process that Reagan used to achieve his reconstruction and that Obama only used as a last resort to enact pieces of his health care reform bill after Democrats lost a crucial Senate seat.
Biden has stated that if Republicans will not negotiate in good faith and then vote for his next two bills ― the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan ― he will seek to pass them through reconciliation as well. The choice is the GOP’s. Whether or not they pass as one or two reconciliation bills, this would be an unprecedented use of the process to enact such a sweeping agenda.
But the interests of the Reagan era and before still pose a threat to derail Biden’s agenda.
In his address to Congress, Biden noted that his plans to increase taxes on the rich and corporations would enable his spending plans to pass “without increasing the deficits.” He may not have harped about reducing the national debt, but his deficit-based appeal shows that this Reagan-era interest may not be so easily dislodged.
At the same time, some financial industry titans on Wall Street and economists wedded to Reagan’s economic program are raising the old fears of inflation amid Biden’s talk of big spending plans. So far, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has deflected these concerns and promised to hold interest rates down. In a poetic fashion, Powell, appointed by Trump, is playing a similar role for Biden by ignoring inflation fears similar to what Paul Volker, Jimmy Carter’s choice to run the Fed, did for Reagan by tackling inflation with zeal.
But while Volker helped Reagan by whipping inflation and manufacturing economic growth in time for his reelection, he also forced Reagan to adopt tax increases that went against his plan. Reliance on such bureaucrats can be a double edged sword.
Like all would-be reconstructive presidents since Jefferson, Biden faces the task of managing the separation of powers. Despite facing public pressure to solve the nation’s problems, the president is just one branch among three. Congress also gets a say. And with a 50-vote majority in the Senate, he has no room for error ― or independent freelancing. That means he needs the support of democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.).
It also means that much of Biden’s plan could be thrown in the trash bin if one member of the Senate Democratic caucus balks at the next reconciliation plan. The same is true about the non-budgetary parts of Biden’s agenda, which will nearly all meet the fate of death by Republican filibuster unless all Democrats vote to change the chamber’s rules.
Biden’s true tests will come in the next 100 days as his agenda comes up against the anticipated wall of Republican opposition in the Senate. His response and that of his party are what will determine whether he will succeed in his ambition.
If Biden does not succeed, that will leave the political playing field to another potential reconstructor to pick up the pieces and build something new. That could be a new face in the crowd ― or a familiar ex-president still constitutionally eligible to serve one more term.