As the White House and congressional Republicans negotiate over an infrastructure deal, the comparisons between President Biden and President Franklin D. Roosevelt multiply. The parallels are natural — both Biden and FDR assumed power in the midst of severe economic recessions, both announced enormous recovery and jobs plans within the first 100 days of their administrations and both faced rising threats to democracy, at home and abroad. But those obvious similarities have obscured another important comparison — Biden appears to be replicating key aspects of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency.
Much of Biden’s popularity during the campaign season and his first few months in office derives from his blue-collar persona. Even when he’s proposing the biggest government investment in social programs since the Great Depression, he isn’t threatening. He’s just Joe from Scranton.
Eisenhower was the same. In June 1945, Eisenhower visited his hometown in Kansas and proclaimed, “The proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene.” This statement would have been unremarkable, except that he had just won World War II and defeated the Nazis. Both Biden and Eisenhower’s electoral success came from their appeal to independent and swing voters from the other party, largely because they struck voters as a safe choice.
Although both Biden and Eisenhower were selected as centrist candidates within their own parties, they both moved leftward once in office. To be sure, Eisenhower was a reluctant civil rights advocate. He preferred to leave school desegregation to the states to manage and didn’t want to interfere with the southern “way of life.” But Eisenhower took action in 1957 when Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus deployed the state National Guard to prevent Black students from integrating Central High School in Little Rock. After dispatching the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to protect the students, Eisenhower delivered a televised address in which he declared, “Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts.”
Few of Eisenhower’s Republican Party supporters expected him to enforce civil rights. Yet, Eisenhower prioritized the rule of law above all else, and if that made his actions more radical than anticipated, so be it.
Similarly, Biden campaigned for the Democratic Party nomination as a centrist. His campaign initially promised a return to normalcy, rather than the progressive change touted by some of the other candidates. But after winning the nomination and the general election, Biden moved to the left, embracing many of the polices on climate change, education and family care advocated by his primary rivals. And like Eisenhower, some of Biden’s Democratic Party colleagues have balked at his move to the left. Most notably, Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinBriahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels Biden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week MORE (D-W.Va.) has frequently thrown cold water on Biden’s proposals and required negotiation in order to give his vote to the administration.
But Eisenhower and Biden’s shared focus on infrastructure as national defense is by far the most important and telling similarity. In 1919, Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower participated in the first Army transcontinental motor convoy to test the mobility of the military during wartime. The journey covered 3,251 miles and took 62 days. The experienced convinced Eisenhower that the nation’s military-preparedness required a well-maintained, direct highway system. In 1955, he was in a position to do something about it. He declared in his State of the Union address that “A modern, efficient highway system is essential to meet the needs of our growing population, our expanding economy, and our national security.” Even the name of the legislation, the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, emphasized the defensive nature of the infrastructure plan, which Congress passed the following year.
Sixty-five years later, President Biden also drew inspiration from his previous experience to shape his infrastructure plan. In his April address to a joint session of Congress, Biden spoke about his personal interactions with President Xi of China: “I spent a lot of time with President Xi…He’s deadly earnest about becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world.” Biden then introduced his American Jobs Plan as an essential element of national security: “We’re falling behind the competition with the rest of the world,” he said. “Decades ago, we used to invest 2 percent of our gross domestic product in research and development…Today… that’s less than 1 percent. China and other countries are closing in fast.”
In addition to similar marketing for their infrastructure plans, both Eisenhower and Biden proposed paying for their infrastructure bills with tax increases. Eisenhower supported an increase in the gas tax, as well as taxes on tires, buses and trucks. Biden has advocated for an increase in the corporate tax rate and the rate for individuals making more than $400,000 per year.
Perhaps this last element explains why the obvious similarities between Biden and Eisenhower have gone overlooked. It’s impossible to imagine a Republican supporting a commonsense tax increase to help balance the budget, and there’s little doubt that Eisenhower would be shunned by many in today’s Republican Party for doing so.
But Eisenhower can still serve as a valuable guide for Biden, even if he belonged to a different political party. In early March, the president met with a group of historians to discuss the precedents established by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR and Lyndon B. Johnson. Eisenhower may not have been on the list, but Biden appears to have learned a great deal from his example.
Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D. is a presidential historian and a senior fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. She is also the author of “The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution” and can be followed on Twitter @lmchervinsky.