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Another FDR, LBJ or Jimmy Carter?

If You Ask Me

Joe Biden came to the presidency with visions of transforming American society — another Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson. But so far, he’s looking more like another Jimmy Carter.

Biden’s was a faulty premise from the start. Although he had a long, respectable Senate career, Biden is neither an inspiring leader in the Roosevelt mode nor an arm twisting political master like Johnson. And he was considerably older than either man was when he assumed the presidency.

Axios reports that Biden sees himself as more of an LBJ and is pushing party loyalty and twisting an arm or two to pass his Build Back Better version of the New Deal and Great Society. But he is trying to do it in one big, outrageously costly chunk without explaining its contents, building public support for individual programs or having the votes.  

Instead of emphasizing parts of the bill the public may find appealing — reduced pharmaceutical costs, child care, clean energy — all we hear about is “Biden’s $3.5 trillion agenda” and its potential consequences.

So how did Roosevelt and Johnson accomplish so much more?

Becoming president in the worst year of the Great Depression, Roosevelt brought the beleaguered American people hope from his inaugural proclamation of having nothing to fear but fear itself and through his mastery of the new radio medium with his intimate, confidence building Fireside Chats.  

Johnson’s personality did not necessarily inspire voters but it did inspire respect and yes, fear, in fellow politicians to do his bidding. As minority leader and majority leader during the Eisenhower presidency, he also practiced bipartisanship that benefitted his party and the nation.   

Roosevelt and Johnson introduced and passed the most expansive social programs of their times by doing it in increments, dealing with one problem after another, and not thrusting a mammoth program on a suspicious, troubled public in a single, multi-trillion dollar hunk like the hard to comprehend $3.5 trillion mishmash under the admonition to “Bring Back Better,” which sounds like an expensive grammatical error.

And even if he had the personal qualities that brought so much strength to the FDR and LBJ presidencies, Biden came into office lacking one absolute necessity, a working majority in the Congress — a virtual tie in the Senate and the slimmest of margins in the House.

Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 with a majority in both Houses — 311 Democrats to 102 Republicans in the House and a 58 to 36 Democratic majority in the Senate.  In the off-year election two years later, after passage of much of the early New Deal legislation — but traditionally a losing year for the president’s party — he was rewarded with a supermajority in both houses.

It’s largely forgotten that FDR established the New Deal on a celebratory note. Within days after his March 4, 1933 inauguration and after passing an Emergency Banking Act, closing besieged banks, Roosevelt decided it would be good to offer his depressed nation a lift, declaring, “I think this would be a good time for beer.”  

The public was awaiting final state ratification of the constitutional amendment ending the failed decade-long  prohibition of the production and sale of alcoholic beverages, and  the president easily got Congress to approve the sale of low-alcohol beer and wine to temporarily relieve the long thirst. (A grateful Budweiser got its retired team of Clydesdales out of the barn and sent them to the White House to deliver the first ceremonial case of Bud to FDR.)

Then he got down to business, but only after taking another austerity measure, passing the Economy Act of 1933.  This legislation balanced the federal budget by — get this — cutting federal salaries and pensions, along with veterans’ pensions, over the loud opposition of his party’s left.

Next — and swiftly — came passage of the first New Deal reforms, one by one:  the Civilian Conservation Corps, to combat unemployment among young men; the first public works projects with the Federal emergency Relief Act; the mammoth Tennessee Valley Authority conservation project, the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to protect  people’s savings. 

All of that happened in about the same amount of time we have been witnessing the Biden presidency. For LBJ, the pattern was similar. As he finished the assassinated President Kennedy’s final year, Johnson was able to get  laws passed that  Kennedy couldn’t, primarily civil rights and voting rights legislation.

Then, elected in his own right, with supermajorities in both Houses, he passed legislation that created Medicare and Medicaid, aid to education, cleaner water and air, aid to the arts and humanities and literally everything else he could think of.

And now, Biden is trying to do the same as Johnson and Roosevelt — without their votes and without their skills. 


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.

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