Joe Biden's first two years: He could be a president on par with FDR and LBJ

Don't laugh: As a presidential historian, I can tell you that FDR and LBJ were also underestimated at first

By Robert S. McElvaine

Contributing Writer

Published January 20, 2023 5:45AM (EST)

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

Scientific polling did not yet exist in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first two years as president, but it is beyond question that his approval was enormous. During Lyndon Baines Johnson's first year-plus in office, his approval rating averaged an astonishing 74.2 percent. At the end of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.'s second year in office, his approval ratings hover in the mid-40s. It would seem laughable, then, to categorize him as being on their level. FDR is almost always counted among the greatest American presidents. LBJ is not, but likely would be had he not sunk the nation into a pointless, no-win war in Southeast Asia.

Yet a strong case can be made that JRB has, to this point, proven to be a great president, worthy of mention alongside those two.

As a historian who has devoted a couple of decades each to researching and writing on the eras in which the second President Roosevelt and the second President Johnson were in office, I can make that case. My book "The Great Depression: America 1929-1941" remains among the standard histories of that era. The time frame of my new book, "The Times They were a-Changin'," is what I call "the Long 1964," from the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the fall of 1965 — precisely Lyndon Johnson's first two years as president.

Each of the three men was greatly underestimated when he entered the presidency. "Franklin D. Roosevelt is," Walter Lippman famously wrote in early 1932, "a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President." The elite intellectuals of the Kennedy administration mocked Vice President Johnson as "Rufus Cornpone" and "freckle-belly." Biden was — and in many quarters still is — seen as too unexciting, too old and so on.

Both FDR and LBJ began their presidencies against the backdrop of national tragedies that provided the potential for strong support for their programs. Roosevelt took office at the nadir of the Great Depression. "The whole country is with him," humorist Will Rogers said. "If he burned down the Capitol, they would cheer and say, 'Well, at least he got a fire started, anyhow!'" Johnson coming to power following the shock of the assassination allowed him, as he later put it, to market his plans as "the dead man's program and turn it into a martyr's cause."

The pandemic served as something of a parallel to what the Depression was for Roosevelt, and the horrors of Trumpism and the Jan. 6 Insurrection could have provided a propellant similar to the assassination for Biden, but Donald Trump's cult-leader control over a large fraction of the population got them to believe two huge lies: that Trump had done a good job handling the pandemic and that Biden had not really won the election.

The more notable accomplishments during Roosevelt's first 24 months include several important pieces of Depression-related legislation, such as the Emergency Banking Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the National Industrial Recovery Act, as well as the creation of numerous new federal agencies, some of which are still with us — including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Housing Administration, the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation and the Tennessee Valley Authority — and others now part of history, like the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration and the Civil Works Administration. (Some of the New Deal legislation of the most lasting importance, such as the Social Security Act and the Wagner Labor Relations Act, came later, in the second half of FDR's first term.)

In his first two years in office, Lyndon Johnson oversaw the massive achievements of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as the Economic Opportunity Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Housing and Urban Development Act and the Immigration and Nationality Act, which eliminated national origin, race and ancestry as criteria for being allowed to immigrate into the United States. His administration also launched Medicare and Medicaid, Project Head Start and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Biden's two-year record stacks up well against the very high bars set by FDR and LBJ, beginning with the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to stimulate the economy, followed by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to provide for repairs and extensions to the nation's roads, bridges, railroads, water systems (the need for which is obvious, for instance, in Jackson, Mississippi, where I live) and broadband. In 2022, he secured passage of the PACT Act, expanding health care and benefits for those who were exposed to toxic substances during their military service, and the CHIPS and Science Act, funding advanced scientific research and investing $53 billion to manufacture silicone microchips in the U.S. The crown jewel in 2022 was the Inflation Reduction Act, which does more than any previous legislation to mitigate climate change, allows Medicare to negotiate with Big Pharma to cut prescription drug prices, begins to crack down on tax evasion by corporations and the very rich and much more. In December, the Respect for Marriage Act, protecting both same-sex and interracial marriage, was passed, as were a reform of the Electoral Count Act, making it more difficult to overturn an election, and reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

Biden has also excelled on the international stage far more than Roosevelt did in his first two years — and more than Johnson ever did. Biden rallied the forces of democracy to oppose Vladimir Putin's authoritarian aggression and aid Ukraine and revived NATO, which Trump had on the verge of collapse.

To grasp just how much harder it is to enact a progressive program in the 2020s than it was in the mid-1960s, consider this: In 1964, 77 percent of Americans polled — and, astonishingly, 74 percent of Republicans — said they believed that the federal government could be trusted all or most of the time. By 2019, only 17 percent of those polled trusted the federal government.

And then there is the enormous advantage that FDR and LBJ had in terms of the makeup of Congress, where both had large Democratic majorities. "We would sit around in the White House and ask each other, 'What needs to be done?'" Dick Goodwin, then special assistant to President Johnson, later told me in recalling early 1965. "We should be able to pass anything we want to." Biden had a small House majority and a 50-50 Senate.

In Olympic competitions, the "degree of difficulty" of a dive, gymnastic performance or ice-skating jump is factored into the score. If we do the same with Biden, anyone but an East German judge during a Cold War-era Olympics would award him a very high score. His first two years rival the accomplishments of both Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, the two most effective of 20th-century presidents — and as was said about Ginger Rogers doing everything that Fred Astaire could do, Biden had to do it dancing "backward and in high heels." 

By Robert S. McElvaine

Historian Robert S. McElvaine teaches at Millsaps College. He is the author of "Eve’s Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History." His latest book, "The Times They Were a-Changin’ – 1964: The Year the Sixties Arrived and the Battle Lines of Today Were Drawn," has just been published.

MORE FROM Robert S. McElvaine

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Franklin D. Roosevelt History Joe Biden Lyndon Johnson U.s. Presidents