Biden Is Turning Out to Be More Like Obama Than FDR

After passing stimulus programs and promising a Roosevelt-like administration, President Biden and national Democrats are back to embracing austerity. We deserve better.

Scott Remer

Biden's debt ceiling deal is a signal of the direction his presidency is taking. (Photo by JIM WATSON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Back in March 2021, after passing the American Rescue Plan, Democrats congratulated themselves on a job well done. The $1.9 trillion stimulus package was hailed as a remarkable, historic, transformative piece of legislation” by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Her colleague, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), called the law momentous,” proclaiming it to be more comprehensive in helping working families… than anything Congress has seen or accomplished in a very long time” and predicted that it would go down as one of the most sweeping federal recovery efforts in history.” 

At the time, economist Jeffrey Sachs breathlessly suggested that Joe Biden had the potential to become the most transformative president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.” Mother Jones’ David Corn claimed Biden was giving big government a big shot in the arm” and called mainstream Democrats well positioned to champion and advance the argument for big government.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), for his part, called the Biden agenda what the American people want, what a majority of us in the Democratic caucus want,” while Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) opined that Biden had definitely exceeded” progressives’ expectations. 

In the Biden administration’s early days, as America sought desperately to exorcise the specter of January 6 and the nightmarish Trump years, liberals and centrists were full of hope. And confronting an unprecedented pandemic — the need to meet the exigencies of the Covid crisis — had shifted the Overton Window decidedly to the left. The ARP wasn’t Biden’s only foray into progressive economics. By October 2022, following months of agitation from organizers, Biden released a program to cancel student loan debt, even if it was woefully inadequate to meet the needs of the student debt crisis and our overall debt crisis.

Yet rather than ushering in a new progressive era of government, Biden and establishment Democrats have since let their burgeoning welfare state wither. They have reverted to the same neoliberal orthodoxy which has wreaked havoc on working people for generations. This shift represents a failure of both policy and politics. 

Fast forward from 2021 to the present, and comparisons likening Biden to FDR ring hollow. Biden’s student debt proposal is on legal life support, awaiting a Supreme Court decision that will likely overturn key aspects of the program, while House Republicans just passed a measure blocking the plan. Biden’s omnibus domestic spending plan, originally dubbed the American Families Plan and later Build Back Better, became the victim of death by a thousand cuts at the hands of conservative Democrats including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.).

Initially envisioned as a sweeping $6 trillion suite of social spending programs paired with infrastructure projects presented as one filibuster-proof reconciliation package, Build Back Better was pared down bit by bit from June 2021 until Manchin finally declared it dead” on February 1, 2022. This result reflected centrists’ continued obsession with bipartisanship: Democratic leadership chose to pursue a separate bipartisan infrastructure bill, sequestering social spending from the infrastructure spending, thereby leaving the social programs vulnerable to Manchin and his ilk’s objections. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), a hollow shell of the original American Families Plan, hasn’t substantially accomplished its titular task, and spending in the bill does not dramatically benefit social programs. For example, the IRA contained a mere $64 billion in Affordable Care Act expanded coverage subsidies, a pale shadow of the original Build Back Better Act’s ample social provisions. 

Meanwhile, the pandemic safety net’s crown jewels — the expansion of Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program benefits; direct stimulus checks; expanded unemployment benefits which benefited 15 million people who aren’t normally covered; expanded SNAP benefits to help people eat; and the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC) which temporarily cut child poverty in half — have reverted to their scanty pre-pandemic forms. In March 2023, 31 million Americans’ food stamp benefits plummeted, in some cases by $328 a month, in what’s been termed the hunger cliff.” Repealing the expanded CTC in January 2022 caused 3.7 million more children to live in poverty and increased food insufficiency in families with children by 25%. And around 15 million people stand to lose their Medicaid coverage due to the end to pandemic-era protections. 

The result of these reductions in benefits amounts to what Branko Marcetic terms one of the most significant contractions of the U.S. welfare state since the Bill Clinton years.” The transience of Biden’s welfare state expansion was hardly a secret. On March 11, 2021, Tessa Stuart wrote in Rolling Stone that some critics are already fretting about a kind of child poverty fiscal cliff’ effect that could plunge millions of children into poverty when the program expires.” Alexander Sammon noted that despite the fact that these programs are effective and popular, there has been shockingly little vocal opposition from Democrats to the expiration of these benefits.” 

Yet these programs did indeed expire, as was easily predictable. And now the Biden administration awaits a likely Supreme Court decision that would end his student loan cancelation program. Biden recently pleaded in his 2023 State of the Union for a divided Congress to restore the expanded CTC, a highly unlikely prospect with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. More recently, Biden acquiesced to a harmful debt ceiling deal after protracted negotiations with Republican racketeers who blackmailed him into imposing strict work requirements for food stamp recipients and cutting social spending as the price of staving off a calamitous default.

No FDR

How did we get here? And how is it that this whole rigmarole is eerily reminiscent of the Obama administration, despite claims that Bidenism represents the transcendence of neoliberal politics? Consider all the parallels: initial analogies to Roosevelt despite the absence of Rooseveltian statecraft; the penny-wise, pound-foolish approach of attempting to redress major problems with insufficiently large or long-term investments; policies stymied or hamstrung by resistance from both Republicans and centrist Democrats; and a contingent of far-right extortionists willing to risk financial default to secure the dismemberment of the social safety net.

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It would be unfair to compare the political terrain in 2008-2010 or 2021-2022 with the favorable legislative landscape which FDR commanded in the 1930s and 1940s, or that of LBJ’s Great Society in the 1960s. The Democrats’ political situation in the more recent cases, despite exercising control of Congress and the presidency, has been far more tenuous (although it is worth noting that Roosevelt was the subject of a failed right-wing coup attempt). During the New Deal, Democrats controlled over 70% of House seats and around 60% of Senate seats, and LBJ’s administration enjoyed supermajorities in both chambers of Congress. To expect the Great Society coalition’s prodigious legislative productivity — LBJ and the Democrats passed around 200 laws—in today’s starkly polarized, politically dysfunctional country would be unreasonable.

But it would also be wrong to conclude that Democrats in the 2010s and 2020s have been blameless in their incapacity to emulate their predecessors’ legislative success. Unlike Roosevelt and Johnson, who were consummate political operators, the modus operandi of today’s Democratic establishment is to accept the political climate as given rather than understanding it to be fluid — and ameliorable — if they mobilize majorities around progressive policies which enjoy widespread popular support via old-fashioned organizing and legislative hardball.

Democrats seem to have unlearned the political knowhow that characterized the Johnson and Roosevelt eras. It’s hard to imagine the FDR who welcomed the hatred of Wall Street bankers or the Lyndon Johnson of the infamous Johnson treatment,” which one reporter characterized as an incredible, potent mixture of persuasion, badgering, flattery, threats, reminders of past favors and future advantages,” taking Manchin’s Build Back Better Act-torpedoing antics lying down. Johnson, a political force who was indispensable to the enactment of historic civil rights acts despite ferocious opposition, evinced great acumen in his politicking. His shepherding of the 1957 Civil Rights Act into law by tying a separate dam construction vote to the civil rights bill’s success defied conventional wisdom, which regarded the act’s passage as unattainable. As Robert Caro, LBJ’s preeminent biographer, commented, To see Lyndon Johnson get that bill through, almost vote by vote, is to see not only legislative power but legislative genius.”

Likewise, the way FDR crafted and understood the New Deal exhibits his firm grasp of political calculus. When a public administrator spoke with him about payroll taxes being ill-suited to fund Social Security, FDR’s response, which defended the use of payroll taxes, was illuminating. I guess you’re right on the economics. They are politics all the way through,” he said. We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program. Those taxes aren’t a matter of economics, they’re straight politics.” And he was right: even today, Social Security is American politics’ third rail”: with notable exceptions, even Republicans tend to shy away from attacking it.

FDR framed his policies for the long term. He envisioned a program of long-range planning” to achieve a rounded and permanent national life” and declared that the duty of seeing the country in a long-range perspective is one which, in a very special manner, attaches to this office to which you have chosen me.” Although it was also a response to immediate needs, the New Deal was designed to be monumental, to unabashedly use government power to improve people’s lives in tangible, concrete and permanent ways. In the first few years of the New Deal, the National Recovery Administration’s blue eagle” logo was practically ubiquitous in stores. The Works Progress Administration, Public Works Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, and Tennessee Valley Authority left concrete, enduring demonstrations of government’s efficacy nationwide, many of which persist to the present.

FDR and LBJ’s willingness to use strategic savvy and political entrepreneurship to promote state power for the long-term contrasts with modern Democrats’ reluctance to embrace power politics — and their reticence to institute programs which unapologetically raise people’s awareness of the government’s role in their lives. Many voters perceived Obama’s stimulus as being largely ineffective, perhaps partly because the Obama administration was fixated upon rendering the stimulus as unobtrusive as possible, the result of an ideological affinity for the nudge” psychology espoused by Richard Thaler and Obama’s regulation czar Cass Sunstein. In 2010, James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker about Obama’s hidden stimulus, noting that:

The most interesting aspect of the stimulus’s image problems concern its design and implementation. Paradoxically, the very things that made the stimulus more effective economically may have made it less popular politically. For instance, because research has shown that lump-sum tax refunds get hoarded rather than spent, the government decided not to give individuals their tax cuts all at once, instead refunding a little on each paycheck. The tactic was successful at increasing consumer demand, but it had a big political cost: many voters never noticed that they were getting a tax cut.

In politics, perception is reality. As political scientist Suzanne Mettler elaborated in an analysis of the submerged state” and how invisible government policies” endanger democracy, the Obama administration’s hesitance to sully its hands by framing policies which were noticeable in daily life as the act of government was self-defeating, not allowing the White House to reap political capital. 

Zombie neoliberalism

Democrats’ self-defeating tendencies from the aughts haven’t gone away. Most obviously, the Republicans repeated their 2011 debt ceiling blackmail over the last few months. Yet Democrats, despite having had 12 years to eliminate the debt ceiling altogether, were again caught flat-footed. Even when the Democrats still controlled Congress in 2022, Biden unilaterally ruled out abolishing the debt ceiling. 

Biden has made other strategic blunders. When sending out direct stimulus payments, Biden decided not to put his name on the checks, breaking with his publicity-savvy predecessor. Instead, the checks simply bore the signature of a career official at the treasury department’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service.” Reporting requirements for Biden’s stimulus program mean that innovative state and local programs often won’t be tracked by the federal government, making it harder for Democrats to garner acknowledgement for them. Unlike Obama’s stimulus, Biden’s program lacks even a logo. As members of the American Prospects staff note, ARPA’s low legibility has made it harder for the Biden administration to recoup its political investment.” 

If people don’t perceive the benefits of Democratic control of government, it makes it increasingly difficult to rally electoral coalitions around the goal of thwarting Republican victory. And Republican electoral victories, as we know from bitter experience over the last 50 years, lead to pain and anguish for the working class. Republicans’ standard operating procedure when in power is to withdraw social supports, slash environmental protections, and increase funding to the police and armed forces, all of which can have the effect of materially shortening people’s lives.

The latest installment of our ongoing debt ceiling debacle and Biden’s refusal to entertain creative approaches like minting a trillion-dollar coin—even in the face of cuts to the social safety net — underscore that we haven’t emerged from the shadow of neoliberalism. We’re facing, as we have since at least the days of President Reagan, a crisis of faith in the government’s capacity to accomplish positive projects. In this moment, we need more Democrats who understand the power of political symbolism, and are ready to deliver results that concretely improve people’s lives. Republicans will control the House of Representatives for at least the next two years, and we are confronting a crisis of oligarchic political paralysis which requires us to fundamentally restructure the American political system if we seek any hope of truly democratic reforms. 

In the run up to the 2024 election, Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis slaver at the chance to end genuine electoral democracy and accelerate America’s descent into ethnonationalist, hyper-capitalist dystopia. What’s clear is that we need progressive leaders who plan for the long term and design programs which are built to last rather than to serve as temporary blips. If not, we already know how this story will play out — and who will pay the price. 

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Scott Remer received a master’s degree in political thought and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge, with a specialization in the political philosophy of the Frankfurt School. He graduated Yale University summa cum laude in Ethics, Politics, and Economics and wrote his thesis on Occupy Wall Street and the history of American social movements. He blogs at soulof​so​cial​ism​.word​press​.com.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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