Biden is drawing on the lessons of FDR and the New Deal to try to revitalize American democracy.
There have been a lot of comparisons between Joe Biden and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While many of these comparisons have been premature, the parallels are obvious: Like FDR, Biden took office during a major crisis, and he has tried to use that crisis to reshape American policymaking.
But there’s another similarity. When FDR took office during the Great Depression, he hoped his agenda would help people, but also that it would stave off the global rise of fascism and restore faith in US democracy — by showing the public that the American government can get big things done.
Biden doesn’t face the global rise of fascism, but there are other major challenges, including the rise of an autocratic China and shaken trust in American democracy, exemplified by the January 6 Capitol riot.
“We have to prove democracy still works,” Biden said. “That our government still works — and we can deliver for our people. In our first 100 days together, we have acted to restore the people’s faith in democracy to deliver.”
Biden made the comparison to FDR more explicit: “In another era when our democracy was tested, Franklin Roosevelt reminded us — in America, we do our part.”
It’s a different way of understanding Biden’s first 100 days: The plans aren’t just about the immediate crises of Covid-19 and the economy, but about restoring trust in American governance more broadly after decades of decline.
So yes, the recently passed $1.9 trillion relief package and Biden’s recent proposals to spend $2 trillion on jobs and infrastructure and $1.8 trillion on families have helped and would help a lot of people — from speeding up the vaccine rollout to putting money into their pockets. But they also address structural issues the US has long faced — rebuilding crumbling roads and bridges, establishing a federal paid leave policy, making child care more affordable, and offering universal preschool and free community college.
Similarly, the New Deal was about directly helping people — with all those now-famous public works projects employing millions of Americans. But the New Deal also sought to tackle bigger problems, through, say, the enactment of Social Security to fight old-age poverty.
The idea, as Biden articulated in his first speech to Congress: The federal government has to show it can take on big problems. Otherwise, people have a very good reason to be cynical about whether things can change for the better.
“For Roosevelt, there was an explicitly political purpose to the public works programs — to restore Americans’ belief that the government works for them,” historian Eric Rauchway, author of Why the New Deal Matters, told me. “Biden’s rhetoric about restoring confidence in America, that’s a parallel to Roosevelt’s intentions.”
None of that is to say that Biden will succeed. For one, the rest of his agenda — the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan — still needs to pass Congress.
“I don’t want to be a downer,” Rauchway said. “But if this doesn’t happen, things aren’t nearly as comparable to the New Deal as they would be if it does.”
That’s much easier said than done. Unlike FDR’s days, Democrats hold only a slim majority in Congress. And also unlike FDR’s days, there’s a lot more polarization across party lines — making it extremely unlikely that Republicans agree to anything Biden proposes. Those forces, combined with the many veto points imbued in America’s political system (see: the Senate filibuster), make it less likely big legislation will pass.
But the stakes for Biden are huge, between China’s rise and the threat of a repeat of anything like January 6.