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Opinion Biden is planning for a Great Society 2.0

President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House in September 1968. (Charles Tasnadi/AP)

President Biden wants to make government great again, and Lyndon B. Johnson appears to be his new role model, perhaps surprising for those who anticipated that the 78-year-old Biden might be satisfied being a caretaker president after the turbulence of Donald Trump.

The Johnsonian conception of government as an unapologetic force for good has been out of style since the 1970s — among both parties. Ronald Reagan famously declared that “government is the problem” in 1981, and all three Democratic presidents of the past half-century acknowledged feeling boxed in by the backlash to 1960s-style liberalism. Jimmy Carter conceded in 1978: “Government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals, it cannot define our vision.” Bill Clinton declared in 1996 that “the era of big government is over.” Barack Obama reasoned in 2013 that “it’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government.”

Biden hopes big government can make a comeback, like bell-bottoms or macrame. During a prime-time address last Thursday, 50 days into his presidency, he told Americans that putting “trust and faith” in government is essential to defeating the coronavirus. “We need to remember the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital,” Biden said. Touting the American Rescue Plan in the Rose Garden the following day, he added: “This is the first time we’ve been able, since the Johnson administration and maybe even before that, to begin to change the paradigm,” from “trickle down” to “bottom up.”

Using LBJ as a yardstick represents a rhetorical shift from the campaign, when Biden frequently invoked the New Deal on the stump. He spoke at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Winter White House in Warm Springs, Ga., the week before the election. “I’m kind of in a position that FDR was,” Biden told the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, invoking the similar emergencies the two new presidents inherited and Roosevelt’s interest in achieving the quickest available solution.

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Biden’s recent invocation of Johnson suggests a more ideological component to his ambition — and a more fitting role model than the patrician Roosevelt. Both Biden and Johnson won election to Congress as 29-year-olds. Both were pragmatic creatures of the Senate who served as vice president to younger, less-experienced fellow senators who defeated them for the party’s nomination by inspiring young people to get politically engaged. Both found themselves initially mistrusted by the left and civil rights groups but appeared determined to win over those naysayers by being unexpectedly bold.

Johnson’s domestic achievements were extraordinary. He declared war on poverty and backed up his rhetoric by creating new entitlements with Medicare and Medicaid, passing major civil rights laws, creating a federal role in education, liberalizing immigration and so much more — until a real war in Vietnam doomed his social revolution.

Biden operates in a far different political environment than LBJ, and his nascent efforts to create a Great Society 2.0 are fragile. Most of what Biden has accomplished during his first two months is temporary and could be rolled back by the next president. The paradigm-shifting provisions of the $1.9 trillion bill he just signed into law — an expanded child tax credit and earned-income tax credit — must be extended to avoid sunsetting. Both chambers of Congress are not just closely divided but significantly more polarized than in Johnson’s time. And amid Republican intransigence on infrastructure, immigration and voting rights, the filibuster threatens to stymie the rest of Biden’s agenda in the Senate.

Biden is well aware of these realities, yet insiders say he yearns to be a transformational president, despite having campaigned as a transitional figure who would serve mainly as “a bridge” to the next generation of Democratic leaders. That may help explain why he just bowed to pressure from his left flank to endorse changing the rules of the Senate to make it easier to cut off filibusters. He told ABC News on Tuesday that senators should have to talk and hold the floor to keep a filibuster going.

Without changes to Senate rules, Biden will need to coax at least 10 Republicans to support legislation outside the budget reconciliation process. Infrastructure should be the most logical place for bipartisanship, but even as Republicans rediscover their fear of deficit spending, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that his members will not back any infrastructure bill that includes new revenue to pay for itself. Talk about a Catch-22.

The more immediate item many liberals want Biden to blow up the filibuster for is H.R. 1, a sprawling package of measures on voting, campaign finance and ethics that passed the House this month on a party-line vote. But even if Democrats got rid of the filibuster, it’s not clear that Biden could channel his inner LBJ to get the bill passed.

It’s going to be awfully hard, in short, for Biden to do much more than he already has to achieve a great society that can endure. But he has made a start at building a better one.

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