The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden was never going to be FDR. Believing he could be is one of his administration’s biggest problems.

President Biden in Hartford, Conn., on Oct. 15. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Something called Build Back Better may eventually pass, but the dream of a transformational, pan-coalition spending extravaganza expired on Sunday, when Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) announced he was giving up on it. And this marks a turning point for the administration: For all the talk of a “21st century New Deal,” President Biden will not, after all, be the next Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In this, Biden is normal. No matter how narrow or contingent their victories, all Democrats arrive at the White House nursing hopes of being the next Lyndon B. Johnson or FDR, while Republicans reckon to reincarnate Ronald Reagan. Almost all are disappointed because such political genius is rare, and because even those who have it usually come to office at the wrong time to make their political genius count.

Political genius matters — Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush illustrate what happens to presidents who meet a crisis without it. But Bill Clinton, whose charm and ambition might have vaulted him into the top tier, was instead doomed to the middle by an uneventful era.

Roosevelt was elected on the back of a global financial crisis, while John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and his opponent’s radical conservatism, propelled Johnson into office with landslide majorities. Clinton had modest majorities and a modest recession, neither of which gave him the scope for his massive health-care reform. When it comes to radical change, it’s not enough to solve some real problem. Unless that problem is pushed to the very top of voters’ minds by an acute crisis, the general electorate’s natural inertia will tend to swamp the revolutionary fervor of your base.

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Nonetheless, politicians always forget how much timing matters. For 30 years, Republicans have been campaigning on Reaganite tax cutting — and delivering in office, even though the electoral returns to tax cutting keep diminishing. It is telling that after all his claims to represent a new Republican Party, the one major piece of non-emergency legislation Donald Trump managed to pass was a tax bill.

Yet the 1980s tax cutter in chief was very much a man of his moment. When Reagan entered office, stagflation was undercutting the credibility of economic technocrats and breeding tax revolts through “bracket creep.” Because tax brackets weren’t indexed to inflation, then over 10 percent a year, routine cost-of-living adjustments kept pushing ordinary people into higher brackets, though their purchasing power was stagnant. Reagan wooed those voters with a plausible solution: deregulation and tax cuts.

Had Reagan been elected a few years earlier, or a few years later, his presidency might read very differently to history. In 1979, Carter nominated a new Fed chief, Paul A. Volcker, who raised interest rates to 20 percent, triggering a sharp recession that finally halted the inflationary spiral. Had Reagan run in, say, 1978, he might have nominated a different chair and presided over more of the inflation that had doomed Carter. Had Reagan himself nominated Volcker, he’d have finished his first term in the shadow of Volcker’s recession — likely dooming his reelection chances. And if he had run in 1982, as inflation was easing, voters might have been less worried about bracket creep, and Reagan’s anti-tax message perhaps wouldn’t have resonated. Reagan’s success wasn’t just a product of the macroeconomic environment but which years America happened to hold elections.

Or consider Barack Obama, a charismatic superstar who had better reason than any other modern president to fancy himself the next FDR. Unfortunately, the Democrats who made that comparison forgot that when FDR was elected in 1932, the Great Depression was three years old, and already in the process of hitting rock bottom. Obama, by contrast, was elected just months after the Lehman Brothers collapse sent the global financial system into convulsions. His political situation was arguably closer to Herbert Hoover’s than FDR’s, and when he rammed through major legislation anyway, his party suffered a major midterm loss.

Biden’s world-historic crisis doesn’t look very Rooseveltian either, though one could forgive his team for thinking otherwise in January, before it turned out there was still much more pandemic left to preside over. And even if the vaccines had ended covid-19 on schedule, he still wouldn’t have an FDR-style mandate because a pandemic just doesn’t call for one. A contagious disease may justify intrusive and expansive public health measures — temporarily. It does not convince frightened voters that the economy has permanently broken and should be junked in favor of a government-designed replacement. His minuscule majorities are also nothing like what FDR and LBJ had to work with.

Like most of the presidents before him, Biden misread an expansive mandate into an election that called for something more modest. And, like other presidents who mistook their mandate, his administration has come to grief. Now he must try to work himself out of it in time to face the voters who elected him to be the president, rather than a timeless historical icon.