It seemed presumptuous, almost megalomaniacal when Joe Biden last August sought to position himself as a modern-day Franklin Delano Roosevelt, arguably the most formative American president of the 20th century. The reasons the Democrats had chosen Biden as their candidate for president were all decidedly unglamourous. Predictability and experience were among them, but above all, there was a fear that a more ambitious candidate might scare off voters. Biden was the candidate to beat Donald Trump – that was the goal. Nobody expected a new FDR.
Biden, who was 77 at the time, was both a emergency solution and a compromise: a Washington establishment figure everyone could agree on but no one was particularly excited about. And why should they be? The candidate generated excitement above all with his legendary Freudian slips and the question as to whether he, as the oldest president in the history of the United States, would even survive his term in office.
And yet, on that warm August day, as he introduced himself on stage in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden compared himself to Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democratic giant who had defeated Adolf Hitler as president and fought the Great Depression at home with an unprecedented social-welfare program. FDR showed that the U.S. could recover and prevail. "And so can we,” Biden said.
That sentence got lost in the cacophony of the election campaign. If anything, it was interpreted as the hyperbole of a man who clearly needed to distract from his own weaknesses with exaggerated comparisons. After all, wasn’t it Biden’s own advisers who admitted behind closed doors that Trump’s derisive nickname "Sleepy Joe” contained a dash of truth?
Biden will soon have served his first 100 days in office, and it can already be said that in this short time, he has achieved more than some of his predecessors did over the course of an entire term. "Uncle Joe,” as Biden is referred to among Democrats in a strange mix of malice and affection, set a course for America in a matter of only weeks that is shaking off not only the pandemic, but also the neoliberalism that began in the early 1980s under Ronald Reagan.
From 1979 to 2017, the purchasing power of a white middle-income worker fell by 13 percent, yet per-capita national U.S. income rose by 85 percent. As the elites on the coasts amassed fairytale wealth, industrial workers in the Midwest lost their jobs or were forced into poorly paid service jobs. Nothing benefited Trump more than the feeling among many voters that the Democrats are closer to Wall Street bankers and internet billionaires than plumbers in Wisconsin or nurses in Missouri.
Biden has set out to change that. His American Rescue Plan is a gigantic $1.9 trillion spending program that amounts to half of Germany’s gross domestic product. Every American who makes less than $75,000 a year will now receive a check for $1,400. At the same time, child tax credit allowances for families will be increased to such an extent that, mathematically at least, child poverty will be almost halved. Free daycare spots are to follow. Biden has also announced an infrastructure program that includes another $2 trillion in spending. The Democrats want to revamp 20,000 miles of roads and repair 10,000 bridges. The country is also to get 500,000 new charging stations for electric cars.
This goes deeper than just putting a band-aid on the wounds of an acute economic crisis. Biden won’t shape the U.S. into a full-fledged, European style social democracy – the belief in the power of the individual is too deeply anchored in American society for that. But with a little luck, Biden could succeed in reining in an unbridled capitalism that now primarily serves a very narrow swath of the elite and is destroying trust in government. In 2016, two-thirds of white workers believed that the government in Washington was controlled by the rich and influential corporations and that voting had become a pointless exercise.
Biden understood that the economy needed to recover before he could set about repairing American democracy, says Daniel Ziblatt, a political scientist and professor at Harvard University. "And that is what he has focused on.” In doing so, Biden is ironically jumping into a void left by his predecessor. The New York real estate magnate was never a classic representative of his party. Trump won the presidential nomination against the Republican establishment – and with the promise of investing billions in American infrastructure.
"We Can Reward Work, Rebuild the Middle Class"
Now, Biden wants to implement the economic turnaround that Trump always talked about but never got around to implementing. The Democrat frequently mentioned his own humble upbringing on the campaign trail. He grew up the son of a businessman in Scranton, Pennsylvania, whose luck ran out in the 1950s. Biden has turned the story into a metaphor for a country that needs to take care of its normal people again. "We can reward work, rebuild the middle class,” he said in his inaugural address on Jan. 20, which historian Jon Meacham helped draft. Meacham is best known for a dual biography he wrote about Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The book pays homage to the president who led the U.S. through World War II. But it could be argued that Roosevelt's "New Deal” did more to shape the country than his foreign policy. It was FDR who introduced the country’s pension system and social security, established a minimum wage and gave workers the right to organize in unions. Nobody to that point had done more to change economic life in the U.S. And if Biden now positions himself within this tradition, it can also be seen as a counterrevolution to the era of Reagan, who, in 1986, said that the most terrible words in the English language were:"I’m from the government and I’m here to help."
Reagan’s contempt for government became deeply rooted in the American consciousness and even influenced Democratic presidents like Bill Clinton, who further opened the U.S. to free trade and weakened the welfare state. The idea behind it was that the U.S. would be best served if the government withdrew as far as possible from the lives of its citizens. But the American conviction that everyone is the architect of his or her own fate has been deeply shaken by the pandemic.
Hundreds of thousands of restaurant and store owners lost their livelihoods from one day to the next and are now dependent on checks from Washington. The country is currently finding its way out of the corona crisis as quickly as it is because the government invested more than $20 billion in the development and deployment of vaccines. Viewed in this light, every vaccination appointment is the antithesis of the old Republic line that the government is the natural enemy of free citizens.
More than 40 percent of Americans have already received at least one vaccination shot, and the vaccination drive is in full swing across the country: in hockey stadiums, drugstores and in supermarkets in places like Georgia Avenue in Washington, D.C. Inside the store, between the pasta aisle and the fruit section, a sign reads "COVID-19 Vaccine – Start here.” If you have an appointment, all you have to do is bring your ID, that’s it.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during a visit to a baseball game with his daughter Anna Boettiger in Quaker Hill, New York, in 1935.Foto: George Skadding / AP
After taking office, Biden formed a COVID team in the White House that has devoted all its energy to delivering vaccines as quickly as possible. On some days, 4 million people across the country receive their shots. A week ago, Biden announced that every adult American should be able to sign up for a vaccination appointment starting in mid-April, and by the end of May, the pandemic should be history for the vast majority of them.
It’s clear to the president that the economy won’t rebound until people no longer have to fear the virus, which is why he is relying on massive government spending in addition to vaccines. In this respect, the president does differ significantly from Roosevelt.
The British economist John Maynard Keynes, the brainchild of deficit spending, implored Roosevelt in 1930s to stimulate the economy with a debt-financed program – and to thus show that the world’s largest democracy was capable of changing the lives of its people for the better. Despite all the reforms, Roosevelt remained a child of his times and viewed Keynes’ revolutionary ideas with skepticism. Until World War II, U.S. borrowing never exceeded 6 percent of gross domestic product, which was a major contributing factor to the economic crisis dragging on well into the 1930s. It was a mistake that Biden won’t repeat.
In the current year alone, the president plans to rack up around $2.3 trillion in debt, more than 10% of U.S. economic output. It’s a huge amount – and in normal times, Republicans would do all they could to put a stop to it. The idea that the state must not live beyond its means was part of the Republican creed for decades. But here, too, Trump shattered old convictions: During the final year of his presidency, fresh borrowing exceeded 15 percent. Compared to that, Biden has been almost miserly. The president doesn’t want to finance his infrastructure program solely by means of borrowing, though. He also wants to increase taxes for Americans with annual incomes of over $400,000.
Biden has learned the lesson from his time in the Obama administration that voters are unforgiving when it comes to hesitance. During the election campaign, he promised to reach out to the Republicans in Congress. In retrospect, this seems more like a tactical maneuver to maintain an aura of bipartisanship. Biden, after all, pushed his stimulus package through Congress using a procedural trick that made it impossible for his opponents to torpedo the bill.
Matt Duss, adviser to leftist Senator Bernie Sanders
It almost seems as if the Oval Office has molded Biden into a new politician. For decades he cultivated the image of a centrist Democrat who is guided not by ideology, but by the dictates of what is possible. He didn’t care that friends of his in the left-wing of the party consider him to be an opportunist. While still on the campaign trail, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the hero of the progressive wing of the party, said: "In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party.”
Now, the very Biden who so carefully polished his image as a centrist is pushing through the most determined reform program in recent American history, much to the delight of his erstwhile detractors within the party. "I think President Biden understands what many progressives have been saying for a long time: that Trump was not a break from the status quo, but a product of the status quo,” says Matt Duss, an adviser to leftist Senator Bernie Sanders. He says the new administration must show it is capable of improving the lives of its people if it wants to prevent a return to Trump-style politics.
Off the record, many on the left concede what a godsend Biden has been for them. The presidential election in November was very close and the Democrats ultimately prevailed because high wage-earning white men in the suburbs turned their backs on Trump, voters who would have been unlikely to lend their support to Bernie Sanders and his socialist agenda.
"Only Nixon could go to China” is a popular saying in the U.S., but it also fits Biden well, because just as it took an anti-Communist like Richard Nixon to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing in the 1970s, today it takes a centrist like Biden to impose a wealth redistribution program in the United States reminiscent of those seen in Europe.
Biden’s metamorphosis cannot be understood without looking through the lens of the botched start to the Obama presidency. As Obama’s vice president at the time, Biden experienced first-hand how his boss became entangled in tough negotiations with the Republicans in Congress. Obama wanted to show that he was willing to work together with the very America that had fought him so passionately. But ultimately, it was the Republicans who reaped the rewards, winning a majority in the House of Representatives in landslide 2010 midterm elections.
Biden is determined to avoid a similar fiasco in the midterm elections in November 2022. But his presidency will only be a success if he can defend his majority in the Senate, which currently hangs on a single seat.
Biden also wants to step out of the shadow of Obama, who has outshone him with his rhetorical brilliance and what seems like effortless nonchalance. During the election campaign, Obama's loyal supporters still talked about Biden as if he were a somewhat dim student who, although not short of diligence, unfortunately lacked that crucial bit of quick wit and charisma. After Biden made another bad slip of the tongue during a debate, former Obama spin doctor David Axelrod shook his head in pity on CNN in response.
In that respect, the U.S. is also experiencing a late act of emancipation. Obama’s presidency was first and foremost a symbolic success: He was the first black president in more than 200 years of U.S. history. At the same time, it was associated with the hope that, after the bloody aberration of the Iraq War, sanity would finally return to the White House in the field of foreign policy, which is also the precise reason Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in a kind of pre-emptive move just eight months after he took office.
But the president was never quite able to live up to those expectations. He neither managed to bring the Israelis and Palestinians closer together nor end the killing in Syria. He didn’t even keep his promise to close the Guantanamo detention camp in Cuba. In terms of domestic policy, he was also a disappointment in the eyes of many Democrats. His health care reform remained piecemeal, and an overhauling of the country’s immigration laws bogged down in Congress.
"FDR did not become a legendary president because he gave such inspirational speeches," says Max Bergmann of the Center for American Progress in Washington. It was because "he took things in his hand and got so much done." Biden probably thinks along similar lines. He now wants to actually carry through with the things that Obama talked about so eloquently. And Biden isn’t letting vanity get in the way. If it can somehow be avoided, he shuns the big stage – which at the same time also serves to reduce the risk of dominating the headlines for days on end with one of his famous bloopers.
Even when Biden without a Teleprompter, danger always lurks. That he recently indirectly called Russian President Vladimir Putin a killer in an interview was likely more of an oversight than any clever foreign policy maneuver. And when, a little over two weeks ago, he held his first big press conference, he got so hopelessly lost in thoughts about Senate reform that he was only able to finish his convoluted sentence construction with a sighed "anyway.”
Biden Says He Might Run Again, At the Age of 81
It’s up to his new team to iron out such blunders. Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain is one of them, but also Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who has been a Washington insider for decades. Most recently, she proposed a global minimum tax on corporations in order to dry up tax havens.
The advantage of Biden’s age and experience is that he no longer gets dragged into every political skirmish. Biden doesn’t share Trump’s passion for social media and would never think of sharing his anger with the world via a tweet. He leaves the debates about gender toilets and cancel culture to the rowdy anchors at Fox News looking for low-hanging fruit. Biden wants to lower the country’s political blood pressure, because all the excitement only benefits the Republicans.
He can also see how desperate his Republican opponents have become. And as long as the refugee movements on the southern border of the United States don't trigger a sense of national crisis, they have nothing on a president who already enjoys popularity ratings that Trump could only dream of. In their desperation, the Republicans are resorting to tinkering with election laws in the states to make it harder for African Americans to go to the polls. Which only seems to further motivate Biden. At his press conference, the president let it slip that he could well imagine running again in 2024. He would then be 81 years old.