It is almost as if we cannot make sense of the present White House incumbent without identifying a phantom soul mate from the past. With Joe Biden, this analytical parlor game has gone into overdrive.
Now that the president is once more someone the United States can have on in the background, it is tempting to compare him with George H.W. Bush, another one-time understudy who proved adept at the back-office aspects of the job.
Biden is also being likened to Lyndon B. Johnson. In protecting voting rights and tackling poverty, LBJ easily outstripped his predecessor, partly because he was a more formidable legislator than JFK had been. So maybe Biden can do the same, as he seeks to upgrade the 1965 Voting Rights Act, one of Johnson’s legislative landmarks, and to carry out the most significant expansion of the welfare state since the Great Society reforms of the 1960s.
Then, of course, there are the well-worn parallels between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Biden, such as the president being cast as the putative architect of a new New Deal. Like his Democratic forebear, he views the federal government as the main driver of U.S. recovery. And unsurprisingly, this is the semblance Biden seems to find most agreeable. Recently, at a White House symposium bringing together some of the United States’ most distinguished historians, he reportedly observed to the Roosevelt biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin: “I’m no FDR, but …”
There is another way, however, of thinking about the Biden presidency: not as a revival of Roosevelt, but rather as a repudiation of Reagan. Arguably, Biden has become the first Democratic president in 40 years to mount a major counteroffensive against the legacy of the country’s 40th leader.
To restore the Democratic Party's viability in presidential politics, Bill Clinton made significant ideological concessions to Reaganism. Indeed, the young president almost ventriloquized Reagan in his 1996 State of the Union address when he declared, “The era of big government is over.” Two years earlier, after another Clinton State of the Union, Reagan joked, “I’m reminded of the adage that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Only in this case, it’s not flattery, but grand larceny.”
More surprising was how enthusiastically Obama saluted Reagan. During the 2008 campaign, Obama openly praised what was then the most conservative presidency of the previous four decades. At one of his own White House seminars for historians, Obama was eager to glean from them what lessons he could about The Gipper.
Biden, however, is signaling that the era of big Reaganism is over by rejecting the central proposition of the Reagan presidency: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” the most ringing line from the 1981 inaugural. Biden is trying to engineer not only a revival of government, but also a reconsideration of its essential role. For this president, restoring the soul of America requires reviving faith in government.
In making his case, Biden has already been at pains to point out that the federal government was the builder of world-beating infrastructure in the 1950s, and the victor of the space race at the end of the 1960s. Now government has been mobilized to combat the planetary pandemic.
By seeking to levy more corporate tax, Biden is also trying to revive the nobler instincts of U.S. boardrooms, a rejection of the greed-is-good ethos prioritizing the maximization of shareholder value that took hold in the 1980s. Regulatory robustness, of that type that went out of fashion during and after the Reagan years, will be a central feature of the Biden era.
This 78-year-old is also departing from the model of the modern presidency that Reagan essentially invented, with its emphasis on the theatrical aspects of the job. For him, the presidency is neither performative nor omnipresent.
As he delivers this rebuttal to Reaganism, there is an irony: the obvious similarities between these two Irish Americans, whether it be their geniality and shamrock charm, or their shared respect for the office of the presidency and occasional forgetfulness. There are political parallels, too. Just as Reagan Democrats, those blue-collar hard hats affronted by the cultural left, became so prevalent in the Rust Belt, so Biden Republicans, those white-collar conservatives disaffected by the conspiratorial right, could end up being decisive in the commuter belt.
Yet as we close in on his 100th day as president, that artificial time frame first introduced into the political calendar by FDR, it is worth noting that Joe Biden is not so much Roosevelt revisited. Instead, his presidency is more a case of Reaganism rejected.