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The Reagan era is over

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Today support for the 46th president is at levels Donald Trump never enjoyed. Joe Biden has a 56 percent job approval rating. Support for Biden’s policies is also strong: the American Rescue Plan, 76 percent; permitting undocumented immigrants to become U.S. citizens, 65 percent; reentry into the Paris Climate Agreement, 63 percent; raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, 61 percent; reversing Trump’s Muslim ban, 57 percent; and halting construction of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, 54 percent.

These numbers reflect a public rejection of Donald Trump. But something more is at work. The coronavirus pandemic has become linked to other national crises: climate change; racial injustice; economic inequality; and even democracy itself. In his inaugural address, Biden acknowledged the challenges ahead: “This is a time of testing. We face an attack on democracy and truth. A raging virus; growing inequality; the sting of systemic racism; a climate in crisis; America’s role in the world. Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact is we face them all at once, presenting this nation with the gravest of responsibilities.” 

One sign of the changing times was Biden’s decision to hang a portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office. Roosevelt established a path Democrats dutifully followed for decades: Use big government to solve big problems. Although FDR is remembered for saying in his 1933 Inaugural Address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” the line that won the most applause was this: “I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis — broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

Roosevelt’s words met the moment. In his first 100 days, FDR created an alphabet soup of government agencies, and in 1935 he signed Social Security into law. Republicans lambasted Roosevelt. Alf Landon, the party’s 1936 presidential nominee, criticized Social Security, citing it as an example of government “bungling and waste.” 

Roosevelt’s call for “action, and action now,” was popular. In 1936, he won 46 of 48 states. “The Champ,” as FDR was known, forced Republicans into a “me-too” posture, promising that, if elected, they would not touch Roosevelt’s New Deal. As Dwight Eisenhower memorably said, “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.”

Roosevelt’s New Deal was a great success. Over time, “have-nots” became “haves” and were lifted into the relative luxury of middle-class life. Following World War II, military veterans left the big cities behind and journeyed to the suburbs, where newly built homes were waiting. As the nation prospered, Democrats worried that FDR’s New Deal coalition was losing its clout. In a final strategy meeting just days before he was murdered, John F. Kennedy wanted to know at what point in their upward climb suburban voters became Republicans. To woo these voters, Kennedy proposed a middle-class tax cut — a measure Lyndon Johnson signed into law weeks after Kennedy’s death.

Running for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan cited Kennedy’s tax cut as one of the few areas of agreement he had with the late president. Inaugurated in 1981, Reagan uttered his famous line: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Voters agreed. In a stunning reversal, polls found a dramatic shift. In 1936, 56 percent favored a concentration of power in the federal government; just 44 percent preferred that power be left to the states. By 1987, the roles were reversed: 63 percent wanted power concentrated in state governments; just 34 percent preferred the federal government. Other polls reflected the same sentiment. In 1985, 57 percent said, “Washington is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and private businesses;” just 38 percent wanted more government involvement to solve the country’s problems. 

These changed attitudes forced Democrats to use the same “me-too” tactics Republicans once employed. Bill Clinton promised to be a “New Democrat” who would not immediately turn to the federal government to solve problems. Seeking reelection in 1996, Clinton told Congress, “The era of big government is over,” a line that could have been easily uttered by Reagan. In 2008, Barack Obama criticized Clinton, saying, “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way. . .that Bill Clinton did not.”

Obama hoped to be a transformational president. But the changes he sought met with public skepticism and unanimous Republican resistance. Passage of ObamaCare ignited a firestorm. Republicans denounced it as a federal takeover of health care, and voters questioned whether the law would deprive them of their personal physicians. In 2010, Republicans won control of Congress, and in 2014 they increased their majorities.

Today’s multiple crises have set the stage for a revival of FDR-style big government. When things are going well, voters are inclined to voice skepticism of government and the costs associated with it. But when things are going poorly, they demand action. The crises Biden inherited are on a scale not seen since the Great Depression. And public attitudes have shifted. In 2020, 54 percent told the Gallup Organization that the federal government “should do more” to solve the country’s problems; just 41 percent said it was doing too many things that “should be left to individuals and businesses.”

Whenever there is a crisis, those afflicted want “something done.” Today young people want help with student loans and government action to solve the climate crisis. People of color demand racial and economic justice. Parents want schools open. Everyone wants a vaccine. The cry for government action is growing, and Democrats are united in their desire to do “something big.” Forty years after Reagan’s 1980 landslide, the Reagan era is over.

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America and author of “What Happened to the Republican Party?”

Tags Barack Obama Big Government Bill Clinton Donald Trump FDR Joe Biden New Deal Political parties in the United States Politics of the United States Republicanism in the United States Ronald Reagan

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