Is Biden the new FDR or LBJ? History says no
One of the attributes that made Harry Truman one of the greatest presidents of the 20th century was his personal modesty. He would never allow his acolytes to compare him to his illustrious predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt. However, no such humility constrained the six Democrats who subsequently attained the nation’s highest office. In the buoyant days between election and the completion of their first “100 days,” all of them — John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and now, Joe Biden — apparently encouraged supporters and media alike to portray their grand aspirations by comparisons to the man who led the country through the Great Depression and a world war.
While it is obviously too soon to pass judgment on the Biden presidency, all of the others fell woefully short of the FDR standard. Only one — LBJ — left behind a legislative legacy that significantly changed America.
Any attempt to predict likely results for President Biden should begin by examining the factors that brought success for Roosevelt and Johnson. There are two that were decisive.
First, both men won election in landslides that entailed unambiguous mandates from the American people. FDR carried 42 of the then 48 states. His Electoral College total was 472, compared to 59 for Herbert Hoover. LBJ carried 44 of 50 states and his Electoral College total was 486, compared to 52 for Barry Goldwater.
The 2020 presidential election was many things but it was not a landslide or an unambiguous mandate from the American people. Both candidates carried 25 states, and Biden’s Electoral College margin over Donald Trump was a decisive, but not overwhelming, 306 to 232.
The second factor that underlay the great legislative victories of both FDR and LBJ was their party’s huge majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Roosevelt’s Democrats commanded the 73rd Congress (1933-1935) by a margin over Republicans of 59 to 36 (one seat held by Minnesota’s Progressive Farm Labor Party) in the Senate and 313 to 117 (five seats held by the Farm Labor party) in the House. Similarly, LBJ controlled the 89th Congress (1965-1967) with Democratic majorities over Republicans of 68 to 32 in the Senate and 295 to 140 in the House. Also significant is that the landmark triumphs of both presidents — Social Security and Medicare, respectively — were popular and well-crafted to a point that did win some Republican votes.
In stark contrast is today’s 117th Congress, the most closely divided in modern history with both parties holding 50 seats in the Senate and Democrats holding a wafer-thin majority in the House of 219 seats, versus 211 for Republicans (and five vacancies).
Further clouding President Biden’s chances of future legislative success is the grim track record of his four Democratic predecessors in their first midterm elections. In those elections — 1966, 1978, 1994 and 2010 — Democrats lost an average of 45 seats in the House and five seats in the Senate.
In one respect, President Biden does bear comparison with FDR and LBJ — namely, the breathtaking scope of the agenda he proposes to utterly transform American government and society. However, lacking the huge congressional majorities, any likelihood of that broad agenda becoming law must be seen as a mirage.
If President Biden suffers the traditional midterm losses — an outcome made even more likely by the constitutionally mandated redistricting process — then perhaps his best chance of regaining momentum would be to follow the example of Bill Clinton, who achieved one of the most dramatic reversals of fortune in American political history through a striking embrace of bipartisanship.
After a stunning midterm defeat in 1994, which gave Republicans control of both the Senate and House for the first time in 42 years, Clinton spoke boldly in his 1996 State of the Union address, memorably declaring that “the era of Big Government is over.” He then reached out to Republican leaders, former Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) to craft a historic welfare reform bill that became law via large, genuinely bipartisan majorities in both chambers. This law infuriated the progressive wing of the Democratic Party but it dramatically reduced welfare rolls and lifted millions of Americans out of poverty. It also ensured Clinton’s re-election in 1996.
Last year, Joe Biden campaigned and won election as a moderate who could unify the country. To date, his administration has been anything but moderate — and the only thing he has unified is the Republican Party, in solid opposition to what they see as the dangerous overreach of his agenda. It just might be that future events will require President Biden to govern as the moderate he promised to be.
William Moloney is a Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London and received his doctorate from Harvard University. He is a former Colorado Commissioner of Education.
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