Could Joe Biden be the next FDR?
This, or some version of it, has been a question on the lips of many a liberal pundit since the most conservative major candidate in the Democratic primary field locked up the nomination for president a few months ago — and it’s one plenty have seemed to answer in the affirmative.
In a sense, it’s a question very much worth asking. America’s current economic and public health crises are vast, and they call for nothing less than a return of activist government on a scale unseen since the New Deal.
But it’s also one that Biden’s lengthy history as a deficit hawk, ally of credit card companies, deregulation zealot, and his habit of publicly bashing progressive activists seems to answer quite readily. To put it as starkly as possible, a transformative Biden presidency would require the former vice president to abandon most or all of the instincts that have guided him throughout his nearly five-decade career and begin afresh as a champion of a style of governance with which he’s never been associated.
A politician’s history generally offers some pretty big clues about how they’re likely to do things if elected to higher office. Nonetheless, the obvious hints offered up by Biden’s record have resoundingly failed to put the brakes on breathless speculation about what might be in store should he be sworn in as president next year. “Biden: The 21st-Century FDR?,” wondered one article by the American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson. The Washington Post’s Matt Viser, meanwhile, has argued that Biden “appears to be drafting a blueprint for the biggest surge of government action in generations.” A May report in the Guardian cast Biden as “perhaps unlikely herald of a new progressive era” while a longform essay from New York magazine the same month stated outright: “Biden Is Planning an FDR-Size Presidency.”
The narrative has in part been fueled by the former vice president himself, who has seized on the current moment to say things like, “I think it’s probably the biggest challenge in modern history, quite frankly. I think it may not dwarf but eclipse what FDR faced.” And though they mostly don’t match the scale of such a statement, some of Biden’s official policy proposals do go beyond the kinds of things he’s been associated with before: the construction of 500 million solar panels, a public option for health care, and dramatic cuts to carbon emissions are a few obvious examples.
Setting aside these proposals for a moment, it’s worth first pointing out that almost every Democratic presidential contender for the past thirty years has invoked or drawn comparisons to FDR at one time or another. This includes Hillary Clinton, who ran the most policy-free general election campaign in modern history. It includes Barack Obama, who predictably inspired a Time cover during the United States’ last great economic crisis depicting him in Roosevelt cosplay. It even includes Bill Clinton, the Democrat most responsible for consolidating the Reaganite assault on the very consensus FDR established (among several notable examples, a May 1993 essay in Newsweek entitled “Clinton as Roosevelt” began with the words “To understand Bill Clinton, you need to recognize that he aspires to be the Franklin Roosevelt of the late 20th century”).
The explanation for FDR’s continued valence among liberal politicians is straightforward. As one of only two Democratic presidents famous enough to be known primarily by their initials, his personal appeal to the kinds of people vain enough to want to be president is obvious. As the architect of some of twentieth-century liberalism’s greatest achievements, he’s also a handy reference point for political boldness in general — the New Deal having been gradually transfigured into a vague shorthand for virtually any enterprise liberals want to brand as big and ambitious. With few candidates for president ever wanting to pitch their agendas as small or modest, FDR references have thus become as post-ideological as appeals to the moon landing or apocryphal quotes by Winston Churchill (there being one notable recent exception).
Even discounting this alongside Biden’s entire political history, there’s a much more basic reason to think that faddish comparisons to FDR won’t be borne out in the form of anything transformative should he actually be elected president. As new reporting from the New York Times details, the former vice president is blowing Donald Trump out of the water when it comes to donations from the financial industry — financial interests have already chipped in some $44 million compared to Trump’s $9 million. The contributions have been so vast that the Biden campaign is now reportedly demanding at least $1 million in donations from anyone who expects the candidate to appear at an event.
As the Times notes, big financial donors are already being gifted with access as a thank-you for their contributions: the rewards including private briefings ahead of major policy rollouts. Perhaps even more striking, financial executives are also getting plenty of opportunities to share their policy preferences with campaign operatives — the chairman of software giant Infor reportedly used a July meeting to argue that Biden should rein in infrastructure spending and pair expenditures on new programs with spending cuts.
Leaked details of similar meetings also suggest Biden’s already thin taxation agenda is likely to be watered down further, his pledge to restore the corporate tax rate to 28 percent now apparently coming with a conspicuous asterisk, and his plan for ensuring greater corporate accountability being the policy equivalent of “Come on, man!”:
In recent meetings with donors, Mr. Biden has said that while the wealthy are going to have to “do more,” the details of his tax hikes are still being hammered out, according to someone who has attended multiple fund-raisers but requested anonymity to discuss private conversations. At a virtual fund-raiser held in July, the candidate spoke of the need for corporate America to “change its ways.” But the solution, he said, would not be legislative.
This is simply not the rhetoric or behavior of a candidate who is remotely serious about pursuing an ambitious liberal agenda. Every one of Biden’s progressively inflected policy proposals is certain to rub big donors and industry tycoons the wrong way, and once in office, most politicians tend to default to the people who put them there (“people” rarely referring to left-leaning voters or activists when the candidate is so keen to get Wall Street on board).
Whereas FDR once challenged corporate interests and welcomed their hatred, the current Democratic nominee for president simply can’t harvest their donations fast enough. And whereas FDR once seized upon the Great Depression to confront “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, [and] war profiteering,” the Democratic contender staring down its modern equivalent quite visibly believes that the best occasion to repeat such a confrontation is . . . never.