In a piece that’s generating chatter, Gabriel Debenedetti of New York magazine reports that Biden has privately and publicly been acting as if he’s “planning an FDR-size presidency.”
There are reasonable grounds for skepticism. Biden is a centrist and a firm believer in careful consensus building who has traditionally been more friendly to the “economic royalists” (in FDR’s phrase) than challengers including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been.
And while Biden’s current agenda is arguably more progressive than those of recent Democratic nominees, both Sanders and Warren rolled out far more ambitious proposals for reforming deep systemic problems in our political economy than anything Biden has produced.
But according to Debenedetti’s reporting, Biden has been deeply chastened by what he’s been witnessing:
- Biden has concluded that the pandemic is “breaking the country much more deeply than the Great Recession did,” and will “require a much bigger response,” as Debenedetti puts it.
- Biden says we’ll need a stimulus that’s “a hell of a lot bigger” than the more than $2 trillion that has already passed Congress, which is three times the stimulus Biden helped shepherd.
- Biden has floated ideas such as a Pandemic Testing Board and a Public Health Jobs Corps, both following the model of New Deal legislation.
- Biden recently surprised advisers by telling them it’s time they “expanded their thinking” and suggested taking lessons from the Great Depression and World War II. (Many have noted that a WWII-style mobilization is needed to scale up the supplies and testing we need.)
- Biden recently told donors that due to the crisis, “the blinders have been taken off.” He added: “I think people are realizing, ‘My Lord, look at what is possible,’ looking at the institutional changes we can make."
- Senior adviser Jake Sullivan says Biden understands that come 2021, there is “still going to be enormous suffering in this country,” and that the crisis has expanded “the state of what is possible" with “the role of government.”
There are some discouraging things here. Biden is still musing about bipartisanship in an unrealistic way, and still seems to believe a continuing crisis might make Republicans more amenable to cooperation. (If Biden wins, they will see less incentive to help solve the crisis, no matter how awful it gets.)
It’s also plausible that Biden advisers are encouraging this story line to win over disaffected progressive voters. And it’s reasonable to ask if Biden will forget his ambitions upon winning, no matter what he’s saying now.
But still, the fact that Biden and his advisers are thinking and talking along these lines right now is itself a good development.
It’s worth noting that FDR himself stands as precedent for an extreme crisis bringing out an unexpected level of ambition in a president. As Michael Hiltzik’s history of the New Deal recounts, famed columnist Walter Lippmann wrongly predicted Roosevelt was a mere “pleasant man” who would never constitute an “enemy of entrenched privilege.”
And Roosevelt’s campaign in 1932 only “intermittently telegraphed” the ambitious presidency to come, as Hiltzik notes. While Roosevelt did vow “bold, persistent experimentation” in one speech — a phrase that came to help define the New Deal — this “candid idealism” was not often reflected in other speeches. So Biden’s own history isn’t necessarily dispositive.
What’s more, it’s important for Biden and his advisers to signal right now that they recognize the true enormity of what the country faces — and to continue doing this with more specificity.
In a bracing piece, Garrett Graff tries to anticipate the scale of what lies ahead. It is unsettling. States and cities are going broke. We’re likely to see truly massive economic contractions that could make the current rescue packages look like squirt guns aimed at an inferno. We’re still getting the fundamentals wrong compared with other developed nations, falling far short in testing, which could put untold lives at risk during any reopening, possibly leading to a disastrous second wave.
Getting through this crisis and back to normalcy, if there is to be such a thing again, will require a tremendous and relentlessly creative effort at all levels of government and society. Yet our current president continues to act as if he can make the whole catastrophe disappear with his magical Twitter thumbs.
That itself makes it imperative for Biden to level with the country about what we face, and will give it value if he continues to do so.
It will be on Biden, of course, to prove that he is up to this historic moment. But the first step in rising to that moment is recognizing that it is looming in front of us.