Over the last year, both Joe Biden’s candidacy and presidency have been repeatedly framed in the context of former US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the spending that underpinned his iconic New Deal.
Both men became president at a time of unprecedented crisis. In the 1930s, the ranks of the unemployed were swollen with Americans who wanted to work but couldn’t, while inequality had grown to vast proportions. Fear and uncertainty stalked the land and prominent voices at home and abroad doubted democracy could handle such a moment. Sound familiar?
For Roosevelt, meeting the epochal challenge required reshaping the American state and, in the process, the electorate too. “FDR very much saw the New Deal not only as a way to alleviate economic suffering,” says Sheri Berman, professor of political science at Columbia University’s Barnard College. “It was a part of a larger strategy to fight back anti-democratic forces that seemed to be the wave of the future.”
That’s why moderate Republican senators or sceptical economists like Lawrence Summers miss a big part of the point when they critique the size of Biden’s $1.9 trillion recovery bill. Americans need to see that elections have results and that the Democratic Party’s electoral success can tangibly affect their lives.
The test of Biden’s current legislative effort will be whether he can prove democracy can accomplish big tasks, even as it is challenged by homegrown authoritarians like Donald Trump and the successes of a rising China.
The challenges facing the two men are historically contingent, of course, and can only be stretched so far. Roosevelt had to transform the American government from something more akin to the 19th-century liberal ideal of a minimalist state to the more expansive and assertive formation familiar to us today. Biden does not have to create a social safety net from scratch, although he does seem to be breaking with Barack Obama’s more technocratic understanding of Democratic Party priorities and embracing a more muscular role for the state than recent presidents of either party.
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Emulating FDR doesn’t all come down to dollars spent either. Although federal spending during the New Deal’s first four years doubled the expenditures under Herbert Hoover, it didn’t grow to its modern proportions until the Second World War. Biden’s spending plans arguably overshadow New Deal expenditures, more similar to FDR’s wartime footing. It remains to be seen if he will accomplish anything as bold as Roosevelt’s reshaping of how the American state functions.
“You don’t want an FDR-sized presidency, you want an FDR-shaped presidency,” says Eric Rauchway, professor of history at University of California, Davis. Recovery spending has “got to be more than just shooting a lot of money through the system and making everything go again. It’s got to be about fundamentally changing the way things work”.
Roosevelt’s expansion of the state’s responsibilities, and his willingness to spend public money, offered a real break with the limited federal government that had come before. In his first term, banks were regulated, labor unions encouraged, a safety net established from nothing, giant infrastructure projects built, and public money spent to get the unemployed to work.
This readiness to move quickly and disregard established norms paid big dividends. (“I would rather break a precedent than a promise,” FDR wrote in notes for his 1932 speech accepting the Democratic nomination.) In Roosevelt’s first four years, economic growth hit levels that have never been seen again outside of wartime. That success resulted in highly unusual victories in the 1934 mid-term elections.
It’s important to note, however, that Roosevelt’s Congressional majorities were always attenuated by his reliance on Southern Democrats, who amounted to a third political party and pressured him to essentially exclude many African Americans from his programme.
FDR’s Southern allies became less supportive as black Americans affiliated with the Democratic Party in the North and labour unions grew more powerful. Even after Democrats won a landslide victory in 1936, the New Deal sputtered in the late 1930s as a result of an emergent Southern Democratic alliance with conservative Republicans.
Only one major piece of domestic legislation was passed, and the economy worsened as Roosevelt made an ill-advised pivot to fiscal conservatism. Nor did he pull back from austerity in time to avoid liberal defeats in the 1938 elections.
Despite these compromises and limitations, Roosevelt’s government succeeded in proving that a democratic government could meet unprecedented challenges. The depression was tamed and ultimately defeated once federal spending rose to unimagined heights to defeat fascism on the battlefield.
Biden’s administration faces far different political dynamics than FDR. A left-right populist alliance in the contemporary Congress will be hard, if not impossible, to achieve given that the Republicans who are most interested in redistribution have championed the idea that Biden lost the election.
But it is the success of FDR’s early years that Biden seeks to emulate. He embraces the New Deal specifically, rather than a different era of liberal reform, like the Great Society, or the era of the Second World War of Roosevelt’s reign. The 1930s were a unique exercise in successfully stitching together large and conflicting swathes of the nation without the spectre of an outside enemy.
As the pandemic continues to surge across the country, inequality yawns ever wider, and anti-democratic forces are resurgent, the necessity of such a dramatic approach is evident again. It remains to be seen if it will be possible in a different political context, although Biden’s refusal to trim his ambitions to match moderate Republican fiscal conservatism is a good sign.
“There’s an awful lot at stake, just as there was in 1933,” says Rauchway. “It’s not just getting the economy moving. Again, it is a very perilous moment for democracy in the United States and around the world. We should not underestimate that.”