Less than a month into the coronavirus pandemic, as the death count rose, businesses remained closed and Americans banged pots from their windows and on their front porches to celebrate frontline health care workers, Joe Biden mused in an interview with CNN about the scope of the problem facing the country.
“I think it may not dwarf, but eclipse, what FDR faced,” the then-presidential candidate told CNN on April 7, 2020, referencing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
One month later, New York Magazine ran a story on Biden’s expanding platform headlined: “Biden Is Planning an FDR-Size Presidency.”
The candidate referenced Roosevelt again in August. “I’m kind of in the position FDR was,” Biden told The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos.
In the campaign’s final week, Biden spoke in Warm Springs, Georgia, Roosevelt’s second home, where he recuperated from the polio that left him unable to walk, about his plan to “heal the nation.”
“FDR came looking for a cure, but it was the lessons he learned here that he used to lift a nation,” Biden said.
Biden now approaches his first 100 days in office ― a time to measure a first-term president’s success. These first 100 days are only marked because of the momentous nature of Roosevelt’s First 100 Days, which, as he said in a fireside radio chat upon their completion, “had been devoted to the starting of the wheels of the New Deal.”
Biden set himself up to be compared to Roosevelt. The question now is whether he’s meeting the “FDR-sized moment.”
What Does It Mean To Have An ‘FDR-Sized Presidency?’
What set Roosevelt and the New Deal apart ― and what most contemporary politicians and political observers use to justify their own comparisons to his legacy ― is the scale of ambition.
One aspect is the amount of money to be spent, and Biden is certainly proposing significant figures. He already signed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill. He is now pushing a $2.3 trillion infrastructure and economic spending package while promising another $1 trillion legislative package covering tax changes and additional social spending. This is undeniably a huge sum of money to fund a sweeping program.
But the amount of money may matter less, in terms of comparison, than we think.
In his new book “Why the New Deal Matters,” historian Eric Rauchway explains that it wasn’t the dollar figure of the New Deal that made for an FDR-size presidency. It was the purpose of the programs and the meaning the American people took from them that mattered more.
That’s why other, more recent government interventions, “while immense in size, nevertheless fall short of the New Deal in terms of ambition,” Rauchway writes, referring to the inadequate bailouts and stimulus plans passed in response to the Great Recession.
“The metaphor of ‘bailout’ suggests the ship is sound; it has merely been swamped by a catastrophic swell and once the water has been expelled, it will again be seaworthy,” Rauchway writes. “Likewise ‘stimulus,’ which supposes the organism is healthy and merely needs a strong jolt of caffeine; or ‘pump-priming,’ which holds that the mechanism functions properly and the aquifer still yields plenty of water.”
FDR did something different. “By contrast, New Dealers did not assume the United States was basically sound as it stood, but sought to strengthen its structure ― sometimes by substantially altering it,” he writes.
While Roosevelt was interested in reversing the nation’s disastrous economic collapse, his primary concern in doing so was to save American democracy. This was not an effort solely focused on gross domestic product and unemployment numbers.
FDR faced a more existential challenge: He came into office seeking to restore the American people’s confidence in American democracy at a time when the abject failure of the old way of doing things sent people on a search for something that worked. It being the 1930s, fascism was an increasingly popular alternative. Mussolini’s March on Rome was 11 years old when Roosevelt took office while Hitler seized dictatorial control of Germany the same month he was inaugurated. Roosevelt was a fierce critic of fascism, and he feared that without confidence that the democratically elected American government could work for them, the American people may fall under the sway of an anti-democratic demagogue.
To save American democracy, Roosevelt believed, required doing away with the existing regime that had failed so badly and replacing it with something new.
“The foundational belief of the New Deal was the conviction that democracy in the United States―limited and flawed though it remained―was better kept than abandoned, in the hope of strengthening it and extending it,” Rauchway writes. “The New Deal would show ordinary Americans that their government could work for them, albeit imperfectly.”
How FDR Did It
To forge a new political regime to bolster American democracy, Roosevelt had to repudiate the past.
He campaigned in 1932 against incumbent Republican President Herbert Hoover for “a new deal for the American people.” This New Deal would fundamentally overturn the nation’s existing political economy by transferring control over the national economy from private actors on Wall Street to the democratically elected government and the agencies it would create while funding programs for the government to directly aid the people through employment, unemployment insurance and old-age pensions. It would turn the page on the nation’s experiment with conservative laissez-faire thinking and inaugurate a new era rooted in the nation’s most basic democratic values.
“The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization,” Roosevelt said in his First Inaugural. “We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”
The New Deal itself was not one program or mode of operation. It moved from a focus on a single centralized government agency setting industrial codes, which was deemed unconstitutional in 1935, to an endorsement of labor rights and anti-monopolism that powered Roosevelt’s reelection landslide. And it was noted at the time by its alphabet agencies, many of which still exist today.
What centered it, though, according to Rauchway, was a determination to restore confidence of the American people in American democracy and the recognition of the interdependence of all spheres of economic and social life on one another.
“Recovery could not begin anywhere unless it began everywhere: ‘Interdependence is the watchword of the age,’ [Roosevelt] claimed,” Rauchway writes.
One way to prove this interdependence and inspire confidence in American democracy that Roosevelt championed throughout his time in office was the direct employment of the unemployed by the government. Through programs such as the Public Works Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps. and the Works Progress Administration, among others, the New Deal employed millions of Americans working together to better their nation and the lives of their fellow Americans.
These programs were not simply technocratic policies implemented with the narrow aim to reduce the numbers of the unemployed. They showed that the democratic government meant to represent them would protect them while providing meaning to a despairing people by providing an opportunity to participate in improving their communities and their country.
“Roosevelt and his advisors wanted the public works program to revive not only the economy but also democracy,” Rauchway writes. “By not merely giving money to Americans but hiring them to work on the improvement of their own country, Roosevelt and his administration wanted to show Americans that as they worked for the government, so the government worked for them.”
An ‘FDR-Size’ Legacy
What those Americans employed by the New Deal government left behind is very much still visible today. The signs of the New Deal in our physical world are everywhere, from bridges, tunnels, roads, schools and libraries to monuments, murals and sculptures, as Rauchway recounts. It’s easy to find these examples right next door with the Living New Deal map.
Beyond our physical environment, the New Deal continues to structure our economic lives from Social Security to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to unemployment insurance to agricultural subsidies to labor rights and on and on and on. Many of these programs, like unemployment insurance, remained vital instruments in preventing people from falling into poverty during the coronavirus pandemic. The job programs included significant funding for the arts with employment for muralists, musicians and writers. Among their many important contributions, the Federal Music Project deployed musical ethnographers, including Charles Seeger, father to folk musician Pete Seeger, and John and Alan Lomax to record the nation’s folk music traditions. Their music collections held at the Library of Congress inspired the 20th century folk music revival and the popularization of the blues.
The New Deal is so ubiquitous in our lives that it is easy to forget about it.
“Like the proverbial fish that does not know it is wet because it never leaves the water, we sometimes have trouble discerning the properties and extent of the New Deal because it is the medium through which we move all the time,” Rauchway writes.
Roosevelt’s FDR-size presidency did not always redound to everyone’s benefit. Black Americans, in particular, continue to suffer from the racist implementation of public housing programs and other residential supports. While these programs helped an entire generation of white Americans secure home ownership and rise into the middle class, they were implemented in a purposefully racially discriminatory manner that reverberates today. The racial and class segregation of American cities and suburbs is a direct result of how these New Deal programs were implemented.
This was a result of the compromises Roosevelt made with the anti-majoritarian Southern segregationist wing of the Democratic Party. Roosevelt clashed with the Southern wing of the party, elected by a minority of white votes thanks to Jim Crow voter restrictions, throughout his four terms in office, but never engaged in a direct confrontation with them over race, as he believed such a confrontation would cause them to flee the party and oppose his program.
And yet, paradoxically perhaps, another part of the FDR-sized presidency was that its economic program attracted Black voters to the Democratic Party. Roosevelt won the Black vote handily in his 1936 reelection campaign and in both subsequent reelection campaigns. The realignment of the Black vote from the Republican to the Democratic party began under Roosevelt.
At the same time, those Southern segregationist Democrats that Roosevelt tried not to antagonize on the issue of Jim Crow and race noticed the influx of Black voters into their political coalition and began their slow move away from the Democratic Party. This started first as a legislative alliance with northern conservative Republicans to block Roosevelt’s programs in his second term and, after many decades and the party’s final embrace of the civil rights agenda in the 1960s, their final flight into the Republican Party.
Indeed, the current partisan alignment of the parties as one liberal and one conservative party is a result of Roosevelt’s legacy. He even mused about such a result as a desired outcome. “We ought to have two real parties ― one liberal, and the other conservative,” Roosevelt remarked to an aide in 1944.
What made FDR’s presidency FDR-size was that he had the ambition to repudiate the previous governing arrangements and reconstruct in their place an entirely different way of doing things. He fell far short of fully succeeding in doing so, but his failures were eventually taken up by his successors and realized.
Roosevelt’s success was so resounding that even after Ronald Reagan was himself elected on a promise to end the New Deal-era commitments in 1980, he and his Republican heirs could never fully overcome them.
Where Does That Leave Biden?
Biden may not have achieved as much as Roosevelt did in his first 100 days, but no modern president has matched that level of accomplishment. But what will matter most is whether or not Biden takes up the charge of his ambition with the same particular focus Roosevelt did on repudiating the political regime inaugurated by Reagan and continued by his heirs, George Bushes I & II and Donald Trump.
His first speech to Congress to explain his expansive plans on infrastructure, tackling climate change and investing in the growing care economy on Wednesday will offer the first taste of whether Biden actually envisions the FDR-size nature of his presidency with FDR-size ambition.
He will need to sell his plans as something more than economic stimulus or improvements to physical infrastructure while at the same time separating himself from the weak and tired order that has failed to resolve any of the country’s many problems.
Biden has at times leaned into a repudiative posture toward the old way of doing things, in particular the political dysfunction that is a feature of the political era Reagan inaugurated.
Working with Democrats in Congress, he quickly passed the American Rescue Plan through budget reconciliation, an acknowledgment that Republicans, many of whom do not even believe he was legitimately elected, had no real interest in bipartisan compromise. He has similarly threatened to pass the rest of his plan through an unprecedented two more reconciliation bills this year if Republicans don’t negotiate in good faith.
“We’ll have a good-faith negotiation with any Republican who wants to help get this done,” Biden said on April 7 when discussing his infrastructure plan. “But we have to get it done.”
Biden has also suggested that the Senate adjust its filibuster rules so that legislation to address problems from voting rights to immigration to policing reform can pass. He suggested the Senate adopt a “talking” filibuster to stop requiring 60 votes to end debate. But he said that he wanted to see the legislation that he and congressional Democrats ran and won on to reach his desk.
“[I]f we have to — if there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about,” Biden said on March 25.
At the same time as he has suggested ditching the dysfunctional political instruments of the past, Biden has also claimed that the country already has the tools necessary to solve today’s problems.
“We have the tools to get through this,” Biden said upon signing the American Rescue Plan on January 22. “We have the tools to get this virus under control and our economy back on track. And we have the tools to help people. So let’s use the tools, all of them.”
No president may ever again achieve what Roosevelt did, but those who seek to cast aside the broken practices, arrangements and tools of the politics of the recent past must actually aim to do so.
The jury is still out. His second 100 days should reveal the answer.