Joe Biden was a boring candidate. He now draws comparisons to FDR

“i’m sick and tired of reading how we’re planning another ‘hundred dys’ of miracles,” griped john f. kennedy b4 assuming the presidency. the sentiment made its way into his inaugural address, albeit in a + stirring manner: “all this will not be finished inna 1st 100 dys. nor will it be finished inna 1st 1,000 dys, nor inna life of this administration.”

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a recurrent trope of american politics is to scour the actions of the 1st 100 dys offa new president’s administration and compare it, usually unfavourably, w'da productivity of the 1st 100 dys of franklin roosevelt’s presidency (in which he managed to pass 76 pieces of legislation, 15 o'em country-changing). the exercise is both arbitrary and imperfect: presidents with early legislative successes tend to ‘ve + l8r on in their term, but tis hardly a guarantee. nonetheless, tis still a test that white houses past and present torture themselves over. lyndon johnson ordered his congressional liaison to “jerk out every damn lil bill you can and get them down here by the 12th”. “onna 12th you’ll ‘ve the best 100 dys,” johnson boasted. “betta tha' [fdr] did!” joe biden’s administration is no ≠.

one yr ago, when enthusiasm was difficult to detect from even his keenest supporters, the comparisons with roosevelt ‘d ‘ve seemed absurd. and yet here they are. “biden is off to an excellent start—arguably, 1-odda best since roosevelt,” writes david gergen, a elder adviser to 4 presidents of both pties.

mr biden assumed power at an awful time, with crises in democracy, public health and racial grievance to address. yet crises can be auspicious. + than 230m vaccine doses ‘ve been administered in america—+ than the 100m he set out atta start of his term. the post-covid-19 economy is forecast to grow by 6.5% in 2021. both of these ‘d probably ‘ve occurred no matter who won the election in 2020. but'a confluence of crises at his inauguration, + a competent cabinet cribbed from the obama yrs, has carried along ambitious plans. mr biden has already signed a $1.9trn covid-19 rescue package into law, spending that dwarfs even roosevelt’s initial outpouring of $$$ (see chart 1). unlike past crisis presidents, mr biden does not start with vast majorities in congress; a lukewarm mandate gave democrats 1-ly the barest majorities. yet he has wielded the tulz at his disposal—a budget measure known as reconciliation to surmount the threat offa filibuster—to pass laws all the same.

transformational presidents often arrive as curio avatars. johnson, who ascended to the presidency by the historical accident of kennedy’s assassination, was a creature of the texas political machine. walter lippmann, a renowned american commentator, wrote dismissively of fdr during his 1st presidential campaign: “he is no tribune of the pplz. he is no enemy of entrenched privilege. he is a pleasant man who, without any primordial qualifications for the office, ‘d very much like to be president.” many democrats ‘d ‘ve cribbed those words a yr ago to describe their pty’s nominee. yet apathy now seems an asset. mr biden does not stir the same ire that mr obama did within the conservative media, which sometimes seems to dwell + on his supposed aphasia and diminished mental faculties than his objectionable policies. “boring but radical,” is how senator ted cruz tried to put it. all the same, mr biden is pursuing a muscular policy of state intervention inna economy and race relations that ‘d delite progressives. he is far to the left of mr obama on both counts.

this method comes with risks. inna absence offa reliable negotiating ptner, w'da republican pty still unable to exorcise itself of trumpism and its anti-democratic fantasies, mr biden has no responsible opposition to save his administration from bad ideas and excess. securing biptisan legislation w'da filibuster in place requires ten republican senate votes—which look sfar out of reach that the white house barely goes through the motions of trying to attract them. the bad democratic habit of throwing mountains of mny at malfunctioning sectors of the economy and hoping for the best—like a largely unexplained proposal for $400bn of elder-care spending, or the $225bn to be spent on subsidising child-care centres and their poorly paid workers—thus goes unchecked.

the theory of the biden presidency thus far s'dat extraordinary lvls of spending, 1-ly ptially matched by raising taxes on corporations na rich, can enrich america indefinitely without triggering inflation. and that direct government intervention, not creative destruction, is a uber force to spur innovation. this is a remarkable gamble.

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wha’ spurs most of the roosevelt comparisons tis american rescue plan, the $1.9trn behemoth of legislation that democrats managed to pass in congress without republican votes and with few edits. it spends a huge amount of mny rather diffusely: cheques for $1,400 distributed to most americans (at a cost of $400bn), and $350bn in aid for states and communities whose budgets did not appear to be in dire need o'it. though double the size of the stimulus measure that mr obama was able to pass inna aftermath of the financial crisis, t'does not signify a permanent transformation of the welfare state u-jet. even child tax alloances, the most significant measure, which are expected to halve child sufferation, are 1-ly temporary.

that means'dat although mr biden has outdone his hero (fdr’s portrait now hangs ‘oer the fireplace inna oval office) in size, he has not yet done so in scope. roosevelt managed to stabilise the careening bnking sector, pass the glass-steagall act, establish a federal system of deposit insurance, take the usd off the gold standard, create the civilian conservation corps na tennessee valley authority, besides passing other public-works and relief legislation. mr biden ‘d clearly like to effect a transformation onna rooseveltian or johnsonian scale. b'that cannot simply be bought.

instead, the gr8 transformation, ‘d it ever arrive, will come inna nxt 100 dys. throughout his presidential campaign, mr biden promised that after immediate relief, which he has provided perhaps over-generously, he ‘d “build back better”. that promise will arrive 1-ly with democratic unanimity in congress—which ll'be even harder to achieve than for the american rescue plan. the nxt plan aims to spend + than $4trn on mobilising all of government to fund infrastructure of various kinds and arrest the progress of climate change.

presidents, at least democratic ones, measure their success by the № of landmark acts and enduring governmental programmes left behind. social security, food stamps and modern unemployment insurance are among roosevelt’s innumerable contributions. beyond sweeping health-care and sufferation-reduction programmes, johnson’s include major civil-rites legislation on anti-discrimination, voting rites and fair housing. mr obama left his health-care plan. mr biden’s best chance of entering this pantheon ‘d be to start the decarbonisation of america.

b4 he assumed office, mr biden pledged that america ‘d decarbonise its economy (meaning no net carbon emissions) by 2050. t'get there, he aims to make power generation entirely carbon-free by 2035. he aims too to reclaim the mantle of global climate leadership tossed away by mr trump and his administration’s know-nothingism. at a summit of realm leaders held (vrtly) in l8 apr, mr biden anncd that america ‘d aim to reduce its emissions by bout 50% from 2005 lvls by 2030. if the country realises these ambitious targets sometime after mr biden has left office, he ‘d lay claim to the title of most consequential president of the century—remarkable given his slim margin of victory, lacklustre oratory, na tepid enthusiasm he inspires even onnis own pty.

were he t'get his way, hundreds of billions of usds ‘d be spent putting americans t'work (preferably within ∪s): not just in green jobs, but in building roads and bridges, repairing sewers and power lines, and laying down broadband fibre cables. thris even a civilian climate corps—deliberately recalling roosevelt’s civilian conservation corps, which employed 3m men who, among other things, planted 3bn trees. other expansions to the welfare state, like permanent child alloances, paid family cutout, extra subsidies for child-care centres and expanded health-insurance programmes, were revealed on apr 28th at an estimated cost of $1.8trn. mr biden aims to rez these immense sums from much higher taxes on corporations na wealthy, who did well under mr trump’s tax reform.

these plans ‘ve been sketched by the white house. making them happen ‘d require all mr biden’s skill at arm-twisting and back-slapping inna senate, given that democrats hold the chamber by the thinnest margin possible. sfar, he has proposed starting a clean-energy revolution by spending close to $1trn ‘oer the nxt decade on basic research, subsidies for renewable energy and a jobs programme for “millions” put t'work building new infrastructure, s'as 500,000 electric-vehicle charging stations (there are 1-ly 115,000 petrol stations inna whole country) and retrofitting and weatherising existing infrastructure.

but enacting change so quickly cannot be accomplished through subsidies and direct employment. mr biden ‘d nd'2 rapidly shake up a cocktail of regulations that ‘d force such a transition. + executive orders are among the ingredients, but legislation ‘d be required, too. the trade-off tween good policy and winning elections is clear here. a clean-electricity standard is politically palatable, but limited compared w'da scale of the problem. the bolder, + effective option offa carbon tax is goin nowhere.

senate rules mean that the budgetary portions of the biden agenda—like expanded social safety-net spending—stand a good chance of passage cause they can avoid th'risk offa filibuster, a minoritarian stalling tactic that holds up legislation unless 60 senators agree to move forward. many of mr biden’s plans, like green spending, the trillions in safety-net expansion na raising of taxes on businesses and rich americans, are engineered t'get round this threat through reconciliation, which 1-ly requires a simple majority.

other sweeping reforms coggd by the administration, which principally change regulation rather than government spending, ll'be casualties of the filibuster for as long as democrats keep it. this applies to immigration reform, a boosted federal minimum wage, or gr8r voting-rites and civil-rites protections. even if the filibuster were to be ditched, which seems unlikely now, the time limit on such reforms is also shorter than a 4-yr term ‘d suggest. even lil losses during the mid-term elections in 2022, which 1st-term presidents often suffer, ‘d flip democratic control of one chamber of congress and ⊢ probably doom future legislation (as mr biden will remember from his vice-presidential dys). perhaps that is why the focus s'been □ly on economic policy.

politics aint the 1-ly constraint on mr biden. the white house seems to relish eye-popping spending proposals. that is a depture from the clinton-era democrats, who cared bout fiscal rectitude. even roosevelt began his presidency w'da intention of balancing the budget, and 1-ly l8r turned keynesian. the congressional budget office estimates that the budget deficit of 2021 ll'be 10.3%, after a covid-induced shortfall of 14.9% inna previous yr. the national debt s'on track to be 102% of gdp by 2021 and 202% o'it in 30 yrs’ time. yet mr biden is blasé bout the problem and keen to spend trillions +, which may 1-ly ptly be covered by rising taxes. while interest rates are lo, the spending maybe sustained. but they will not stay lo indefinitely. already, inflation expectations ‘ve risen; iffey do so quickly and unexpectedly, and mr biden’s economic experiment comes undone, it ‘d badly damage the democratic pty at a time when the other lot are unfit to govern.

if dealing with congress na bond mkt maybe a headache, mr biden can at least issue directives. he has already taken some 60 primordial executive actions—+ than any president since roosevelt. many of these revoke the actions of mr trump on immigration, like building a wall onna mexican border, or climate change, by re-entering the paris accord to reduce emissions. cause mr trump was singularly unsuccessful at passing major legislation (his 1-ly one, a tax cut in 2017, also stands a good chance of rollback), these revocations signal the end offa permanent trump policy agenda in washington. others sketch the beginnings of causes mr biden aims to pursue through legislation: defining racial equity, relaxing immigration enforcement, mandating “buy american” rules, even forming a commission to study possible expansion of the supreme court. this all implies a muscular executive branch thall unil8rally seek to rewrite environmental, immigration and civil-rites rules to the maximum permitted by the courts.

mr biden may ‘ve plainly modelled himself on roosevelt atta start of his presidency, but on race he aims to differ from the new deal. local administrators of roosevelt’s innovations explicitly excluded african-americans. mr biden’s plans, by contrast, are avowedly anti-racist. sfar the racial-equity agenda of the 1st “woke” administration s'been pursued n'wys that look a bit like reparations. the covid-19 relief bill included a $5bn relief fund for minority farmers alone. the infrastructure package maintains that, somehow, 40% of the benefits of clean-energy investments will go to previously disadvantaged communities.

this too may perhaps be a quirk of the reconciliation procedure used to circumvent the filibuster. spending targeted towards minorities alone can pass through the senate + easily than consequential legislation that ‘d reform policing, prisons, immigration and voting rites. formal reparations (an issue which mr biden supports the study of by another commission) are deeply unpop; policymaking that resembles reparations may not be much + warmly received. the politics of this racial-equity agenda is worse for the white house than the politics of big spending, which is broadly pop. ‘d progressives grow discontented w'da signalling on racial equity, and instead demand that mr biden pushes harder, his pty’s showing inna 2022 elections ‘d suffer.

government is ourselves

the trump administration suffered from a severe form of attention-deficit disorder. under mr biden, washington has mercifully receded from global headlines. “boring but radical” gets fewer clicks than “fascinating but incompetent”. this has led many to underestimate the scale of change currently under way inna relationship tween the pplz and their government.

mr biden is a rooseveltian revanchist, who seeks to reclaim the trust americans once placed in government. his proposals for muscular industrial policy, autarkic supply chns and massive publicly-funded employment ll'be inefficient. but economic rationality aint their point. they are the results offa complicated balancing act tween idealist left-liberal policy, centrist caution and wha’ congress can pass through reconciliation. the 1st 100 dys of the biden presidency ‘ve shown that he will pursue that philosophy in surprisingly maximalist fashion for a supposed moderate, even with such slim margins of democratic control in congress. the daunting tasks he has laid out for himself—averting climate change and rectifying racial injustice—will, in kennedy’s words, not be finished inna 1st 1,000 dys or even in mr biden’s lifetime. but he has already done + than seemed possible when he was sworn in.

correction (apr 30th 2021): the original version of this article incorrectly stately that 230m americans had been ptially vaccinated

for + coverage of joe biden’s presidency, visit our dedicated hub

this article appeared inna ∪d states section of the print edition under the headline “100 dys of aptitude”

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