Joe Biden needs to emulate FDR and LBJ — but so far, he's not even close

Like the two legendary liberal presidents, Biden faces massive, historic challenges. Is he up to the task?

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published February 28, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

Lyndon B Johnson, Joe Biden and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Lyndon B Johnson, Joe Biden and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of America, and perhaps the world, depends on Joe Biden being a successful president — and, beyond that, by most definitions a successful liberal president. We are less than six weeks into his administration, but so far he has not risen to the occasion. The stakes could hardly be higher.

To illustrate the challenge facing our current president, it may be helpful to compare him to the two most successful liberal presidents in American history: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Roosevelt, as I wrote last week, had to govern America during the Great Depression and World War II. To address the former, he passed a panoply of ambitious progressive legislation which he lumped together under the name the New Deal. The underlying premise of the New Deal, as Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Kennedy has observed, was that everyone should have a certain degree of economic security. (FDR later attempted to codify this concept when he proposed an economic bill of rights.) Roosevelt sought to achieve this through what scholars refer to as the "3 Rs": recovery for the economy, relief for the poor and unemployed and reform of the financial system to avoid another catastrophic financial and economic collapse.

The results of his efforts included landmark legislation that created Social Security, numerous federal jobs programs, laws to regulate banking and finance and new protections for labor unions. Roosevelt furthered these policies after Pearl Harbor forced the U.S. to enter World War II, eventually bringing the economy to full employment even as he helped the Allies defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Johnson has a distinctly checkered legacy, largely because of his disastrous escalation of the Vietnam War, and was viewed as a major villain by the radical left of the 1960s. But Biden could learn a lot from the things LBJ did right on social and economic issues. He passed the landmark civil rights laws of the 1960s (which touched everything from voting rights, job discrimination and segregation to housing rights and immigration policy), created the Medicare and Medicaid programs, strengthened consumer protections and increased federal funding to education and the arts. By declaring and implementing a "war on poverty," Johnson's "Great Society" programs attempted to combat the global threat of Communism by establish as a fundamental tenet of American life that no one should ever be poor, for any reason. LBJ was also far ahead of the curve on environmental issues, and understood that protecting air and water quality, and preserving wilderness areas and endangered species, was about more than conserving natural resources. As he presciently warned Congress in 1965, "the air we breathe, our water, our soil and wildlife, are being blighted by poisons and chemicals which are the by-products of technology and industry."

None of this is meant to excuse or downplay the more troubling aspects of Roosevelt and Johnson's presidencies. LBJ's expansion of the U.S. war in Southeast Asia had catastrophic long-term consequences, and FDR's decision to intern Japanese-American citizens during World War II was an especially shameful episode in the history of American racism. Roosevelt or Johnson were far from being ideal presidents or perfect human beings, but when it came to using presidential power to address the critical issues of their time, they were remarkably successful.

This brings us to Joe Biden. Unlike Roosevelt and Johnson, Biden does not have overwhelming Democratic majorities in Congress behind him. FDR took office in 1933 after a historic wave election, with Democrats holding a 313-117 advantage in the House and 58 of the 96 seats in the Senate. After Johnson's landslide victory in 1964, Democrats actually held 68 Senate seats, the last time any party has held a two-thirds supermajority.

In other words, whatever those two presidents wanted from Congress, they would almost certainly get, whereas the 50-50 Senate and narrow Democratic House majority of 2021 present quite a different picture. Republicans can block Biden's proposed legislation through the filibuster, and individual centrist Democrats — most notably, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia — have the power to force major concessions from the president. To make matters much worse, many elected Republicans remain loyal to Donald Trump and committed to undermining Biden's legitimacy. Roosevelt and Johnson did not have the bad luck of defeating the only president or presidential candidate in U.S. history who has refused to accept losing an election.

Yet the crises facing Biden are at least as serious as those that Roosevelt and Johnson had to face. Like them, he may need to resort to extraordinary measures, which will lead the opposition to accuse him of being a dictator, a communist or worse. That is to be expected; similar things were said about Roosevelt and Johnson. It doesn't matter. Leaders are guided by their understanding of what needs to be done, not their fear of what names their enemies will call them. 

First and foremost, Biden needs to lead America through the latter stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, which Trump made dramatically worse, and which became the single greatest factor in his 2020 defeat. He also has to address continued racial injustice and social discord, in some ways similar to the domestic strife Johnson confronted, as well as something troubling and new: a homegrown fascist movement, cultivated by his immediate predecessor. On the economic front, he needs to create opportunities for millions who have either been chronically unemployed since the 2008 recession or thrown out of work by the pandemic. He must address the staggering levels of income inequality that have existed in America for decades and only worsened during the pandemic. Finally, and most important, he must play a central role in addressing the planetary catastrophe of the climate crisis, which threatens the literal extinction of our species (and many others).

Biden clearly cannot be pass legislation as easily as Roosevelt and Johnson, but when Congress and the courts come up short, he has other methods at his disposal for getting things done.

As David Dayen of the American Prospect argued in 2019, the existing laws used by Trump to change the country in his image can also be used by Biden:

Without signing a single new law, the next president can lower prescription drug prices, cancel student debt, break up the big banks, give everybody who wants one a bank account, counteract the dominance of monopoly power, protect farmers from price discrimination and unfair dealing, force divestment from fossil fuel projects, close a slew of tax loopholes, hold crooked CEOs accountable, mandate reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, allow the effective legalization of marijuana, make it easier for 800,000 workers to join a union, and much, much more.

Indeed, the executive branch has so much power in our unbalanced system that Biden — if he has enough vision and imagination — could take bold strides in addressing systemic racism within law enforcement complex, guarantee the rights of other marginalized groups, create a permanent infrastructure for fighting pandemics and use the Justice Department to cripple the extremist far right and its offshoots. He can prioritize issues like worker retraining and job creation, strategically choosing when to use his bully pulpit to make sure that Democrats are unified around the issues that can only be addressed through legislation. Where laws do not exist to allow Biden to properly serve the American people, he can resort, as Barack Obama often did, to the use of executive orders. These can be easier to overturn by a subsequent president, and are definitely less effective than taking advantage of existing executive powers, but can serve to plug the gaps left open by existing laws. This could be particularly true when it comes to issues like fixing the environment and reforming our immigration system.

How is Biden doing so far? His record is mixed — and that's being generous.

He certainly deserves credit for his early policies in addressing COVID-19 and climate change. He has prioritized listening to scientists rather than right-wing kooks and corporate CEOs. But he has specifically disavowed pushing for a Green New Deal that would permanently protect our environment and restructure the economy, and has been unwilling simply to pay people to stay at home until the pandemic ends, which would be the quickest and most effective way to both contain the virus and provide short-term economic security until everyone can be vaccinated. His proposed stimulus bill would only give Americans modest and temporary relief — expanding unemployment benefits through August, adding $400 per week to unemployment insurance and giving $1,400 checks to most Americans and their dependents — and he has outright refused to pursue bolder economic reforms, even when opinion polls suggest they are broadly popular.

For instance, even though voters overwhelmingly favor the cancellation of at least $50,000 in student debt, and Biden clearly has the power to do this, he has said he won't. His eviction moratoriums have so many holes that millions of Americans may face eviction regardless of the administration's stated policy goals. On a broader level, Biden accepts the givens of late-stage neoliberal capitalism as fixed realities that cannot be challenged. Without major structural reform of our economic system, the watered-down reforms he is pushing for, even if enacted, will be built on a foundation of quicksand.

There are two likely reasons for Biden's timidity. The first is that he is hostage to the Democratic Party's big donors, and to the neoliberal ideology that has gripped the party since Bill Clinton's presidency, when Democrats became allied with Wall Street finance for the first time. The Democratic Party is less dogmatically pro-corporate than its Republican counterparts, but it rejects any profound or systematic critique of capitalism. When it briefly appeared that Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, might win the 2020 Democratic nomination in 2020, the party establishment unified behind Biden, with startling suddenness. If Biden were willing to overturn the economic status quo, he wouldn't have gotten anywhere near the White House in the first place.

One big reason that happened is Democrats' ingrained belief that if they embrace aggressive liberal policies, they will lose elections. (This is largely based on the traumatic defeat of George McGovern in the 1972 election, a special case in several respects.) The examples of Roosevelt and Johnson suggest otherwise. Roosevelt was elected president four times, never winning less than 53 percent of the popular vote or fewer than 432 electoral votes. Johnson became president after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and in the 1964 election won more than 61 percent of the popular vote (the largest proportion in U.S. history) and 486 electoral votes. These two presidents won massive victories precisely by embracing major reforms, and convincing a large majority of Americans those reforms would improve their lives in tangible and meaningful ways.

If Biden's career and historical reputation were the only things at stake here, it wouldn't much matter that he can't live up to the admittedly high presidential standards of an FDR or LBJ. But defeating Donald Trump once was only the first step in saving America. If Biden and the Democrats fail over the next four years, they may not get another chance. Republicans control 20 of the 28 state legislatures needed for redistricting in 2021, meaning they will certainly try to gerrymander themselves into indefinite power. The GOP has also introduced more than 100 bills in state legislatures so far this year aimed at suppressing Democratic votes. Donald Trump Jr. recently urged Republicans to stop "losing gracefully," a signal toward the new GOP strategy of delegitimizing any election that Democrats win. While Democrats are trying to fight back with their own voting reforms, those won't be enough unless they can convince a critical mass of Americans that they are pursuing real, systemic change that will improve both the quality of life and the standard of living. Good government — of the kind people notice, understand and appreciate — is the best strategy for winning elections. 

If Republicans regain power in the next electoral cycle or the one after that, it won't be enough to practice normal politics and await another shot to pry power out of their hands. Our nation and our planet face a ticking clock. Scientists estimate that climate change alone is likely to pass an apocalyptic threshold sometime between 2027 and 2042; chemical pollution that causes infertility and other health problems on a mass scale are also likely to reach critical mass within the next couple of decades. The planet is sending up red flags: The World Wildlife Fund recently reported that population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have plummeted by 68 percent since 1970.

In other words, Joe Biden's presidency may be our last, best hope, as dire as that sounds. As with FDR and LBJ before him, failure is simply not an option. If his administration does not rise to the challenge, the improving quality of life and expanding economy of the last several centuries, which most of us have taken for granted, may vanish forever. 

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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