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Joe Biden is Not a Radical. Neither Were FDR or LBJ


Jacobin is just grasping at straws right now. What at one point looked like it would be an interesting socialist publication has devolved into a political ideology of “LIBZ SUCK.” The problem here is that at its core, such an ideology depends on Democratic leaders not actually leading on economic issues. And Joe Biden, well, he very much is doing just that. You can critique him of course–his poor work on student loans for instance. But in the big scheme of things, it’s been kind of amazing to watch.

So Jacobin writers such as Luke Savage are going to the point of pretending like people think Biden is a radical and comparing him unfavorably to FDR and LBJ. The problem is that none of this makes any sense. First, the entire case is based on a few dumb headlines. And a case based on headline writers engaging in hyperbole is pretty weak beer to begin with. No one really thinks Biden is a radical. But the real problem is comparing this negatively to the New Deal and–especially–The Great Society.

Taken together, pieces like these — wildly varied as they are in terms of breadth, thoughtfulness, and perspective — constitute a decently representative sample of the media consensus throughout Biden’s first hundred days. Putting the conclusions most offer (or at any rate suggest) aside, the many analogies to LBJ and FDR do give us a useful metric for evaluating the Biden presidency, and in particular the claims made about its radical impetus and transformative ambition. Both presidents, albeit in different ways, presided over eras which saw the reconfiguration of American institutions but also a partial redefinition of the terms through which they were collectively understood.

The New Deal, to take the most obvious example, produced a durable political consensus, but also a new and lasting framework for thinking about rights, welfare, and the role of the state. The programs and legislation that made up the Great Society, meanwhile, similarly yielded the foundations of a new social contract when it came to health care, housing, and Civil Rights, and reordered America’s political imaginary in the process. In a radically different spirit, the Reagan revolution successfully embedded conservative ideas about taxation, public spending, and culture while ushering in reforms that would be embraced by subsequent administrations.

Rupture with the past, durability into the future, and an imprint at once institutional and ideological: these are the basic hallmarks of any political era that can in retrospect be called transformative or radical.

While it’s certainly easier to pronounce upon presidencies past than one barely four months old, the first hundred days of the Biden era have not given us particularly strong indication that the new administration is animated by this sort of reformist zeal. On immigration and foreign policy — two files which attracted special attention among liberals during the Trump presidency — it has thus far maintained a lamentable continuity with its predecessor.

With some notable exceptions, it has refrained from exercising the tremendous discretionary power at its disposal to maximize the potential of executive orders. (On what is arguably the single most important moral question facing global politics today — the potential waiver of intellectual property rights around vaccines for COVID-19 — it also needlessly dragged its feet on an explicit campaign promise and had to be shamed by activists into putting the interests of pandemic victims in the developing world ahead of pharmaceutical companies.)

In at least one other significant area, namely health care, Biden has also been characteristically conservative. Though unsurprising given many of his statements on the campaign trail, the context is nonetheless instructive. Some of America’s most significant reforms, after all, have been born as much out of crisis as straightforward political intent, and a president unwilling to use a once-in-a-generation pandemic to push structural change in the way health care is delivered has a less than convincing claim to radical élan. While Biden’s recent speech to Congress did include a liturgical recitation of the mantra that “Health care should be a right, not a privilege,” any reference to his once-touted (and supposedly feasible Public Option), let alone an actually universal model, was nowhere to be found — as sure a clue as any that the Democratic leadership has no plans to alter its mostly amicable relationship with insurance companies.

Notice the rhetorical work that is happening here. First, Savage is cherrypicking the areas where Biden has not been good and calling them “characteristically conservative” as opposed to the many other areas where he has been good. This is just preexisting narrative passing as political analysis. But more importantly is the blithe discussions of The New Deal and Great Society as transformative moments that radically changed the nation. The problem with this is that the left did not see them this way in the 1930s and 1960s. They saw them as hopeless conservative sellout half-measures in the exact same way that Savage and other Jacobin writers see Biden today.

To very briefly discuss this–take the Townsend Plan compared to the Social Security Act, the exclusion of jobs usually done by Black workers to get the National Labor Relations Act and Fair Labor Standard Act passed, the appointment of so many conservatives such as Jesse Jones to powerful positions by FDR, the marginalization of liberals in the administration by the late 1930s, the unwillingness to nationalize industries, and the many other critiques made by the left in the 30s. There’s an incident where Clint Jencks, the communist organizer and later Mine, Mill organizer who plays himself in Salt of the Earth, was part of a youth delegation of lefties that Eleanor managed to get a meeting with Franklin for. And Jencks sees the president and just starts yelling at him about being such a total sellout, infuriating FDR. There are lots of cases like this. The history Savage is telling here of the New Deal just doesn’t make sense because radicals at the time did not see it like this. They saw Roosevelt like Savage sees Biden.

And if the discussion, such as it is, of the New Deal is weak, I mean, my God, to think the Great Society was transformative leftism is just out to lunch. While I personally think much of the Great Society was excellent, not only was much of it totally half-baked, but it was also subject to Johnson’s personal whims toward conservatism on many issues and seen as totally laughable among large aspects of the leftist Black community. I mean, just read Angela Davis or Stokely Carmichael or Fred Hampton or so many other people on what they thought about the Great Society as people were so desperate and angry that they were rioting in the cities for years. Moreover, for a publication that is theoretically pro-labor, you’d think there would be a mention of Johnson not lifting a finger to see the repeal of the right-to-work provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act when it nearly cleared the Senate in 1966. That could have been transformative. And Johnson wouldn’t put pressure on senators to see it through.

Back to the contemporary politics:

Both the PRO Act and, potentially, the landmark voting rights bill HR 1, currently sitting in the Senate after passage through the House, on the other hand, would be genuinely transformative if realized. But it’s, as of yet, unclear what the Democratic strategy for them is given the continued presence of the filibuster (or indeed if the White House will stick its neck out for them at all, the recent debate around the minimum wage setting a somewhat less than encouraging precedent).

All told, the thrust of Biden’s domestic agenda thus far falls short of anything worthy of comparisons to the Great Society or New Deal in either scale or scope. As distinct from 2009 and with a smaller Congressional majority on its side, the new administration has at least provisionally opted to break from the conservative rhetoric and — with business approval — the instinct toward fiscal restraint that hamstrung Barack Obama’s first term. But it has not, as sometimes insinuated over the past few months, declared a crusade against injustice nor shown a particular willingness to antagonize private industry in the manner necessary to achieve lasting political realignment or democratic renewal.

The story of Joe Biden’s first hundred days is one of a liberalism compelled by a mixture of circumstance and necessity to be less cautious and more activist than its analogues in recent memory. But it has also been a story of centrist meliorism mistaken for radicalism and restorative intent conflated with transformative ambition. If lasting change does emerge from the next four years, it will be because people and movements successfully extract concessions from those in power they do not want to concede — not because a conventional liberal president miraculously delivered it from above.

Savage handwaving away the real issue here–the lack of a meaningful congressional majority–just gives away the game. Yes, the difference between 1935 and 1965 on one side and 2021 on the other side is that Democrats had enormous majorities then and do not now. This was for historically contingent reasons that cannot be replicated today. The fact of the matter is that those coalitions were built on including a huge number of conservative white southerners who could be goaded into voting with their party sometimes but also resisted liberals in the party on other occasions. Yes, dealing with the filibuster has to be agenda point #1, but tell that to Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. I don’t see what any of this has to do with Biden. In addition, continuing to trivialize what Biden has done by calling it “centrist meliorism mistaken for radicalism and restorative intent conflated with transformative ambition” not only is basically meaningless but it also describes the New Deal and Great Society!

Continue to critique Biden, yes. Push him on health care and student loans and so many other things. Our job is not to support Biden. It’s to fight for better policy. But as I’ve pointed out, Biden is in fact doing some unprecedented things here, including entering into the Amazon organizing campaign to explicitly endorse the right of workers to join a union without interference–something FDR or LBJ never, ever, ever would have done. It didn’t matter in the end, but then presidents only have so much power. And this should be part of the point. Both liberals and leftists overstate the power of the presidency; as we’ve seen here even in this very brief discussion, congressional majorities are more important to creating change than which Democrat is president.

Better history from leftist publications please.

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