As Joe Biden delivered his first address to Congress last week, it was obvious that something had shifted. In place of the rhetoric of deficit hawks, Biden touted spending and economic expansion. Where the first Democratic president of the neoliberal age had lauded small government, he instead spoke of jobs, public infrastructure, and invoked the spirit of activist states during the Second World War. He spoke of cutting child poverty, raising the minimum wage, and the specter of climate change. With a cursory and characteristic nod to the personal virtue of people on Wall Street, he talked of blue-collar workers, unions, and the middle class, even calling on Congress to send the potentially transformative PRO Act to his desk.
In at least some respects, the speech represented a marked break from the language of the liberal consensus in the post-Reagan era — and also the rhetoric that has defined Biden’s own career at the vanguard of the Democratic center-right. What does it signify? What did it mean? And what does it tell us about the state of American liberalism as the Trump presidency, and the very worst of the deadly virus that ultimately defined its catastrophic final months, recede into memory?
Across partisan lines, swathes of the media have been quick to settle on an answer to these questions. The consensus (expressed with varying degrees of approval, caution, or disapproval, depending on the source) is that Joe Biden is, if somewhat improbably, a radically inclined figure, intent on bringing about lasting changes in the tenor of American life and swerving sharply from the ideological shibboleths that have defined politics since the Reagan revolution. It’s a tidy, compelling and, for many, an understandably comforting story in the aftermath of a presidency experienced by virtually all but its own committed zealots as a singular national trauma. It’s also, at best, a cart-before-the-horse exercise in preemptive political wish fulfillment; at worst a case study in the way intoxicating media narratives can overtake reality and inaugurate a new age before anything resembling one has actually arrived.
Even before he had won the presidency, Joe Biden’s stated policy agenda was already drawing comparisons to LBJ and FDR. Since January, such analogies have only increased in volume as commentators and media outlets respond to the earliest days of his administration: “Is Biden Really the Second Coming of F.D.R. and L.B.J.?” (the New Yorker); “Will Joe Biden Take His Place Alongside FDR and LBJ?” (CNN); “Can Biden Achieve an FDR-Style Presidency? A Historian Sees Surprising Parallels” (the Washington Post). Some, particularly the more effusive, have even eschewed the pretense of a question mark in favor of straightforward proclamation: “Four Ways of Looking at the Radicalism of Joe Biden” (Ezra Klein); “Joe Biden Is a Transformational President” (David Brooks); “Welcome to the New Progressive Era” (Anand Giridharadas). (A third, more sycophantic genre, meanwhile, has effectively fused both formats to ask how exactly it is that Joe Biden is so awesome.)
Taken together, pieces like these — wildly varied as they are in terms of breadth, thoughtfulness, and perspective — constitute a decently representative sample of the media consensus throughout Biden’s first hundred days. Putting the conclusions most offer (or at any rate suggest) aside, the many analogies to LBJ and FDR do give us a useful metric for evaluating the Biden presidency, and in particular the claims made about its radical impetus and transformative ambition. Both presidents, albeit in different ways, presided over eras which saw the reconfiguration of American institutions but also a partial redefinition of the terms through which they were collectively understood.
The New Deal, to take the most obvious example, produced a durable political consensus, but also a new and lasting framework for thinking about rights, welfare, and the role of the state. The programs and legislation that made up the Great Society, meanwhile, similarly yielded the foundations of a new social contract when it came to health care, housing, and Civil Rights, and reordered America’s political imaginary in the process. In a radically different spirit, the Reagan revolution successfully embedded conservative ideas about taxation, public spending, and culture while ushering in reforms that would be embraced by subsequent administrations.
Rupture with the past, durability into the future, and an imprint at once institutional and ideological: these are the basic hallmarks of any political era that can in retrospect be called transformative or radical.
While it’s certainly easier to pronounce upon presidencies past than one barely four months old, the first hundred days of the Biden era have not given us particularly strong indication that the new administration is animated by this sort of reformist zeal. On immigration and foreign policy — two files which attracted special attention among liberals during the Trump presidency — it has thus far maintained a lamentable continuity with its predecessor.
With some notable exceptions, it has refrained from exercising the tremendous discretionary power at its disposal to maximize the potential of executive orders. (On what is arguably the single most important moral question facing global politics today — the potential waiver of intellectual property rights around vaccines for COVID-19 — it also needlessly dragged its feet on an explicit campaign promise and had to be shamed by activists into putting the interests of pandemic victims in the developing world ahead of pharmaceutical companies.)
In at least one other significant area, namely health care, Biden has also been characteristically conservative. Though unsurprising given many of his statements on the campaign trail, the context is nonetheless instructive. Some of America’s most significant reforms, after all, have been born as much out of crisis as straightforward political intent, and a president unwilling to use a once-in-a-generation pandemic to push structural change in the way health care is delivered has a less than convincing claim to radical élan. While Biden’s recent speech to Congress did include a liturgical recitation of the mantra that “Health care should be a right, not a privilege,” any reference to his once-touted (and supposedly feasible Public Option), let alone an actually universal model, was nowhere to be found — as sure a clue as any that the Democratic leadership has no plans to alter its mostly amicable relationship with insurance companies.
The obvious exception, of course, is the recently passed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan — a package that, among other things, includes several social policy provisions experts believe will cut child poverty in half by mid-summer. In size and scope, the plan is undeniably a major improvement on its Obama-era equivalent (the 2009 stimulus bill being considerably smaller). A whiff of fiscal heterodoxy, however, does not imply transformation or political realignment, less still when it has direct precedent in the not-so-distant past. The $2.2 trillion Trump era CARES Act passed just over a year ago, after all, was in fact slightly larger and its anti-poverty impact was roughly the same. As Jacobin’s Seth Ackerman pointed out in March, the key anti-poverty measures contained in Biden’s stimulus are also only temporary, which is surely a relevant detail given how they’ve sometimes been framed:
Intoxicating vistas notwithstanding, the bill’s poverty-fighting measures, as written, provide for a series of checks to be mailed out for twelve months and then they shut down…. In other words, Biden’s COVID relief plan is what you would have expected a President Joe Biden to pass in an emergency. Like the 2020 vintage, it’s a collection of temporary expedients to dampen hardship during a crisis. What it’s not — by itself, anyway — is any kind of paradigm shift. Nor does it transform anything in particular, at least not past 2021.
The suite of policies contained in the American Rescue Plan represent a much-needed injection of public investment during an historic crisis, but they do not constitute a social democratic program (his yet to be passed American Families Plan, for what it’s worth, does propose to extend measures like the enhanced Child Tax Credit to 2025). As the pandemic has so cruelly underscored, the nation’s social and economic infrastructure is cripplingly frail, and Biden’s stimulus will go some way toward patching it up. But, as the plan’s widespread buy-in from big business suggests, there is an important distinction to be made between utilitarian public spending during a crisis and FDR-esque ambition for an egalitarian renegotiation of the social contract. As Matt Karp recently put it:
For all the huzzahs about progress toward American social democracy, it is hard to see how anything here even begins to alter the social relations between worker and boss, citizen and state, labor and capital. There is a reason why 170 business leaders, including the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, Google, Lyft, Siemens, Visa, and Zillow released a letter supporting the package. The one provision in the House bill that did challenge the preferences of some business leaders, the $15 minimum wage, was dispatched in the Senate without any countervailing pressure from top Democrats.
Biden’s tax plan, meanwhile, proposes to fund spending by restoring George W. Bush–era rates for the top tax bracket (rather than Roosevelt levels of 94 percent or even pre-Reaganite levels of 70 percent), and Biden has recently appeared to resurrect his conventional hostility to deficit spending.
Both the PRO Act and, potentially, the landmark voting rights bill HR 1, currently sitting in the Senate after passage through the House, on the other hand, would be genuinely transformative if realized. But it’s, as of yet, unclear what the Democratic strategy for them is given the continued presence of the filibuster (or indeed if the White House will stick its neck out for them at all, the recent debate around the minimum wage setting a somewhat less than encouraging precedent).
All told, the thrust of Biden’s domestic agenda thus far falls short of anything worthy of comparisons to the Great Society or New Deal in either scale or scope. As distinct from 2009 and with a smaller Congressional majority on its side, the new administration has at least provisionally opted to break from the conservative rhetoric and — with business approval — the instinct toward fiscal restraint that hamstrung Barack Obama’s first term. But it has not, as sometimes insinuated over the past few months, declared a crusade against injustice nor shown a particular willingness to antagonize private industry in the manner necessary to achieve lasting political realignment or democratic renewal.
The story of Joe Biden’s first hundred days is one of a liberalism compelled by a mixture of circumstance and necessity to be less cautious and more activist than its analogues in recent memory. But it has also been a story of centrist meliorism mistaken for radicalism and restorative intent conflated with transformative ambition. If lasting change does emerge from the next four years, it will be because people and movements successfully extract concessions from those in power they do not want to concede — not because a conventional liberal president miraculously delivered it from above.