Before even taking office, journalists were already elevating Joe Biden to the ranks of those greatest of Democratic presidents, the ones known not by their names but their initials. Not that he was a three-letter president; no one’s ever called him “JRB.” But he could be, hoped to be. Most of all, had to be. The numerous crises facing the country demanded it. And so, he let it be known during the 2020 campaign, his would be an FDR-sized presidency.
Two years later, no one is comparing Joe Biden to FDR*. If his name is mentioned alongside LBJ’s, it is only to note how far short the achievements of the 46th president have come compared to the 36th**. The one predecessor Biden does find himself sharing a breath with these days is Jimmy Carter, who also presided over rampant inflation at home and debacles abroad.
The flattering comparisons have crumbled in tandem with his agenda. Biden entered office with ambitious plans on climate change, gun control, the minimum wage, immigration, criminal justice reform, healthcare, childcare, parental leave, voting rights, tax hikes on the rich, and a host of other issues, many of which were supposed to be folded into the moribund Build Back Better bill. Yet over the past year, his program has been trimmed relentlessly, as one policy after another has fallen by the wayside like a tree being whittled to a toothpick.
With major action unlikely and the midterm elections rapidly approaching, Biden is now scrambling for any victory he can get, however modest or Pyrrhic it may be. This is especially the case as progressives and other core Democratic constituencies have grown increasingly restive and dissatisfied with what they see as a lack of movement on their priorities. Hence, Biden’s recent embrace of student debt forgiveness and continuing efforts to lift Title 42, the directive first implemented by the Trump administration at the southern border to expel illegal immigrants on COVID grounds, on May 23. Both initiatives have support within the Democratic Party, but that support is far from universal. Biden nonetheless seems determined to push ahead. He needs something, anything, to show the base that he’s with them, even if the cost of placating it is alienating the rest of the country even more.
* Some comparisons may be apt: FDR’s policies prolonged Depression by 7 years, UCLA economists calculate.
The Great Society was predicated on the opposite conviction: America had become an “Affluent Society” (the title of John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1958 bestseller), whose irrepressible growth meant that worries about finite resources could no longer excuse tolerating remediable social problems (There was no such thing as an irremediable social problem.) Treating America’s new prosperity as permanent and inexhaustible, the Great Society proceeded to kill the goose laying the golden eggs, setting in motion what Shlaes calls an “economic tragedy.” Neither the inflation of the 1970s nor the transformation of America’s industrial heartland into its Rust Belt was inevitable, she argues. Both were direct, foreseeable consequences of short-sighted choices: demanding that monetary policy accommodate irresponsible fiscal policy, and labor and management agreeing to enrich one another by fleecing customers and shareholders ever more brazenly.
Don’t worry though, Biden can handle it — just ask him:
“Milton Friedman isn’t running the show anymore,” Biden told Politico last year. “When did Milton Friedman die and become king?” Biden asked in 2019. The truth is that Friedman, who died in 2006, has held little sway over either Democrats or Republicans for almost two decades. But Biden wants to mark the definitive end of Friedman and the “neoliberal” economics he espoused by unleashing a tsunami of dollars into the global economy and inundating Americans with new entitlements.
I’m sure things will turn out differently this time around.