Opinion | White House

How the Democrats' Biden-FDR comparisons could backfire

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

President Biden makes no secret that Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and the New Deal are his political lodestars. He studied FDR's transition to the presidency for inspiration, hung a massive portrait of FDR in the Oval Office and invoked FDR in his recent speech to a joint session of Congress. There is no end to liberals writing columns with titles such as, "How FDR's Heir Is Changing the Country." 

But the FDR comparison is problematic. First, the circumstances of the two presidencies are so different as to wreck any analogy. Second, the comparison is setting Biden up for failure.

Joe Biden assumed the presidency at a terrible time. We had lost hundreds of thousands to COVID-19, and tens of millions had lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic; at its peak in April 2020, unemployment was 14.8 percent. But the survival of the United States was never seriously in question. By Biden's inauguration, although unemployment was still elevated, it had dropped to about 6 percent, and economic activity in the first quarter of this year was close to pre-pandemic levels, a fast recovery. 

When FDR took office in March 1933, the Depression was in its fourth and most brutal year and America's survival was in question, which is crucial to understanding why the FDR-Biden comparison is so misguided. By 1933, manufacturing activity in America had all but ceased, every bank had either closed or limited operations and the federal government had run out of money to meet its payroll. In addition, since the 1929 crash the stock market had fallen 75 percent and the suicide rate had tripled, and 15 million people, including nearly 22,000 graduates of Ivy League schools, were looking for jobs (unemployment was at 25 percent) that no longer existed.

The crisis was of such a magnitude that FDR took office with unprecedented de facto emergency powers. It wasn't just that he had won in the 1932 election in a landslide or that Democrats had won a nearly three-to-one margin in the House and now held 59 seats in the Senate. Americans were deeply frightened, and they wanted a president who would act boldly. Looking at the anxious faces of the 100,000 people at FDR's inauguration, Eleanor Roosevelt found the occasion "somewhat terrifying" because the public had just given her husband a blank check.

Accordingly, in his first 100 days FDR by one count enacted 16 major pieces of legislation - from the Securities Act to the Agricultural Adjustment Act to the Glass-Steagall Act - that transformed American government and the country's economic and financial life. He still had conservative Southern Democrats to deal with, but as one historian observed, congressmen didn't so much vote on the New Deal bills as "salute them as they went sailing by." 

Joe Biden is wrapping himself in FDR's mantle but without FDR's mandate, authority or crisis. The White House may think that invoking FDR fires up Biden's supporters and proclaims his administration's boldness, but there is a potential downside. Woe to the president who promises the moon and then fails to deliver.  

In his first 100 days, Biden's major legislative achievement was the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, which has long-term social benefits but was primarily marketed as a straight up relief measure - and it passed in the Senate by only one vote. Biden's more potentially transformational legislation, such as the $4 trillion infrastructure and families plans, face a battle, even within the Democratic Party. But by seeking sweeping Rooseveltian change, Biden is necessarily claiming that massive spending is justified because we are in a Depression-level emergency, which many voters may just not feel, and allowing himself little leeway for an un-Rooseveltian compromise with Republicans.

There's an element of hubris in Biden's belief that he can make transformational changes without FDR's crisis and with only razor-thin majorities in Congress and, equally important, embed the changes sufficiently into the American economy that they will survive a Republican presidency, as many of FDR's reforms have done. And remember that, ultimately, not even the New Deal was enough to restore full American prosperity. Arguably, it took World War II to do that. 

If Biden fails to deliver an FDR-scale transformation of America, he may regret setting the bar so high, because it will only magnify the defeat. 

Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations, where he was a member of the ABSCAM prosecution team that convicted a U.S. senator and six congressmen of bribery. He is the author of "America's Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR's State Department, and The Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy."  Follow him on Twitter @gregorywallance.