Learning From the Past

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

One of the presumed advantages of maturity — and Joe Biden is a very mature president — is accumulated wisdom gathered through the span of a long life. Biden is not only our oldest president; he has also spent virtually his entire adult life in national politics. He has seen the system up close and surely knows what works and what does not.

Biden witnessed the last two Democratic presidents’ excessive timidity in approaching the significant issues of the day. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama suffered huge midterm defeats during their first terms because they failed to revive sluggish economies. Neither of Biden’s Democratic predecessors offered bold economic plans and both were undone, in part, by futile stabs at bipartisanship. Obama, in particular, constantly tried to pry a few Republicans from the party’s obstructionist stance, tailoring his programs and nominations — the stimulus package, healthcare reform, the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court — to appeal to moderates within the GOP. It never worked. 

Clearly, Biden learned a valuable lesson: Go bold and go over the heads of Republican leaders to appeal to Republican voters. He secured passage of a massive $1.9 trillion stimulus package early in his term. No Republicans in Congress voted for it. Biden did not wait — as Obama did — for Republicans to offer support. Instead, the new president took advantage of slim Democratic majorities in Congress to push through the rescue bill on a straight party vote. The strategy is working: Poll after poll show most Americans — including a significant percentage of Republican voters — support the relief measure. 

As Biden prepares to address Congress Wednesday evening — marking his first 100 days in the presidency — he continues to offer bold initiatives. He has proposed a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure bill, which includes, in addition to the traditional building and repairing of roads and bridges, a large jobs component, broadband coverage for the entire nation, and development of alternative energy sources to combat climate change. Other audacious plans — voting reform, an immigration overhaul, police reform, and an attack on income inequality, among others — likely will come soon.

Not much in Biden’s past suggested he would be a president with such radical proclivities. But, Biden evidently is a student of history, so he must know that high poll numbers, which he currently enjoys, can be fleeting. He must understand the fates of Clinton and Obama, as well as the lessons from the first term of one of America’s greatest presidents: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Confronted by the worst economic crisis in U.S. history, Roosevelt used his first 100 days in office to calm the financial panic and begin rolling out the programs that comprised the New Deal. Fifteen major pieces of legislation were introduced during those first 100 days. Roosevelt’s frenetic attack on the Great Depression gave the concept of “the first 100 days” meaning, and ever since, presidents have been graded, perhaps unfairly, on their accomplishments during the early days and weeks of their terms. 

This analysis is not meant to suggest that Biden faces an existential crisis as great as the Great Depression, though the threat from COVID-19 cannot be underestimated nor can the successes of the new administration in getting vaccines distributed and into the arms of millions of Americans be overly praised. But where Roosevelt faced one extremely daunting crisis, Biden faces a multitude: The pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn, climate change, immigration, income and racial inequality, abuse of power by police, and Republican attacks on democracy (voting rights and the right to protest).The list is so extensive as to make one wonder why anyone wants to be president!

Like Roosevelt, Biden is not wasting his current popularity nor public support for many of his proposals. Of course, Biden would like Republican votes in Congress for some of his proposals, but he also knows, as we all do, that the current Republican Party — in the throes of abject submission to former president Donald Trump and led in Congress by the obstructionist Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the subservient House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — is committed to opposing anything he presents.

More important in Biden’s calculations are Republican voters. He is not likely to peel away many Trump loyalists — hard right conservatives convinced Trump won the November election as well as gun rights advocates, racists and xenophobes, and cultural warriors. But, he is calculating that populist proposals — economic populism as opposed to the nationalist and racist populism of Trump and the Republican Party —  will garner support from Republican voters.

Biden is betting that the $1400 checks people received, an improving economy putting people back to work and raising wages, tax increases on the wealthy and big corporations, a jobs program in the infrastructure package, broadband expansion to rural areas, and other programs that benefit all voters will win him bipartisan support. 

So expect to hear from a bold Joe Biden Wednesday night, a president who knows surely that the only way to win bipartisan backing and break gridlock in Washington is to deliver for all Americans.

Posted April 27, 2021