Joe Biden’s surprising presidency
As Joe Biden approaches the 100-day mark, his presidency has been full of surprises. A $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan replete with life-changing provisions, including a monthly child tax credit, renovations to long-neglected school buildings, help for small businesses and extended unemployment insurance, is on the law books.
And Biden is just getting started. A $2.5 trillion, eight-year American Jobs Plan to repair roads, bridges, rail and water lines; enhance solar and wind development; create highway electrical charging stations; provide high-speed broadband; help manufacturing; promote elderly home care; and develop agricultural plans to capture carbon from the atmosphere is up next. These plans have broad public support. According to a March poll, 75 percent of voters approve of the American Rescue Plan, including 59 percent of Republicans. And 54 percent support infrastructure improvements, even if it means tax increases on those earning more than $400,000 per year. This gives Biden significant political capital, something George W. Bush claimed to have after his 2004 reelection but could never manage to deposit.
In 2020, Biden promised to restore “the soul of America,” a slogan that drew upon Franklin D. Roosevelt’s description of the presidency as a place of “moral leadership.” Biden’s call for restoring traditional values and norms appealed to an exhausted nation, much in the same way that Warren G. Harding won support from a weary nation following World War I. Campaigning in 1920, Harding declared: “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise.”
Like Harding, Biden’s critics saw him as someone who lacked intellectual heft and bent with the shifting political winds. His 1988 presidential campaign ended when Biden plagiarized a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. His opposition to school busing, sponsorship of the 1994 crime bill and handling of Anita Hill’s testimony about Clarence Thomas constructed a case that a Biden presidency would bend to the storms of the moment. Pundits saw Biden as a good retail politician whose cheery persona and story of triumph over tragedy appealed to voters. Democrats saw him as the best candidate to beat Donald Trump.
Thus, at the start of Biden’s 2020 campaign, restoration, not revolution, was its byword. But the coronavirus pandemic created opportunities for President Biden to do big things that Candidate Biden never quite envisioned. In this, Biden’s presidency bears striking similarities to the surprising presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, who eviscerated preexisting conceptions of how they would behave upon entering the Oval Office.
Seeking the presidency in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt was viewed as a political lightweight. New York Herald Tribune columnist Walter Lippmann derisively greeted Roosevelt’s candidacy: “Franklin D. Roosevelt is no crusader. He is no tribune of the people. He is no enemy of entrenched privilege. He is a pleasant man, who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.”
Liberals saw Roosevelt as a privileged dilettante and likened him to a cheerful Boy Scout, a man of “slightly unnatural sunniness” as Edmund Wilson described him. Taking note of these criticisms, H.L. Mencken reported that the Democratic Party nominated “the weakest candidate before it.” These expectations were decidedly off-the-mark, and Roosevelt’s New Deal cemented his legacy in the annals of the all-time great presidents.
Lyndon B. Johnson likewise defied expectations. In a 1949 maiden speech before the U.S. Senate, Johnson led a filibuster to Harry Truman’s civil rights proposals that outlawed lynching, prohibited employment discrimination and eliminated obstacles preventing African Americans from voting. Rising from his desk Johnson declared that “We of the South” saw the filibuster as “the last defense of reason, the sole defense of minorities [i.e., Southerners] who might be victimized by prejudice.”
But as president, this sensitive Southern Democrat spearheaded passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, saying: “I always vowed that if I ever had the power, I’d make sure every Negro had the same chance as every white man. Now I have it. And I’m going to use it.” Johnson’s Great Society and his civil rights program forever changed America.
Ronald Reagan also defied expectations. Pundits saw Reagan as a washed-up, ex-Hollywood actor who was intellectually lazy and spoke only from cue cards. Reagan’s blatant disregard for facts led his critics, in the words of his pollster Richard Wirthlin, to view him as “dumb, dangerous, and a distorter of facts.” Gerald Ford decried Reagan’s “simplistic solutions to hideously complex problems”; “his conviction that he was always right in every argument”; and his penchant to “conserve his energy.” But as Barack Obama later acknowledged, President Reagan “changed the trajectory of America.” From 1980 to 2020, Reagan’s vision of “a smaller government; a greater America” stood as a touchstone.
The surprising presidencies of Roosevelt, Johnson and Reagan have much in common. Historian Robert Caro writes that “power reveals.” In each case, those presidents who changed America harbored deep convictions. Perhaps the most revealing moment of what was to come was Biden’s whisper in Barack Obama’s ear that the Affordable Care Act was “a big f—–g deal.” As president, Biden wants more BFDs, and the American Rescue Plan and American Jobs Plan are just the start. Like Roosevelt, Johnson and Reagan, Biden is an adroit politician who knows how to seize the moment.
The Great Depression set the stage for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Civil rights marches and police armed with dogs and billy clubs provided the backdrop for Lyndon Johnson to pass landmark civil rights legislation. Double-digit inflation and unemployment created opportunities for Ronald Reagan to cut taxes and curb government spending. At his press conference, Biden noted that successful presidents “know how to time what they’re doing — order it, decide, and prioritize what needs to be done.”
As it turned out, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan sought the presidency not merely for the honor it bestowed but to change the country. Defending the new office, Alexander Hamilton famously declared, “Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.” Like his predecessors, time and chance have made “Sleepy Joe” both energetic and surprising. Once more, the pundits have been proven wrong. And, like his predecessors, Joe Biden is out to change the country.
John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America and author of “What Happened to the Republican Party?”
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