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Guest Column: FDR to LBJ to Joe Biden

By Gary Pearce

Joe Biden’s surprisingly progressive presidency looks more like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson than his more recent Democratic predecessors – Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Now Biden has an opportunity to do something no Democrat since FDR has done: get Americans to believe their government can work for them.

Like FDR and LBJ, Biden began with a big bang. He’s spending big bucks to put money into people’s pockets and put people to work.

In his first 50 days, Biden pushed through his $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan.” It sends money to individuals, businesses and state and local governments to deal with the coronavirus and help people in need.

Now he has proposed an “American Jobs Plan” that would inject $2 trillion-plus into infrastructure, green energy and addressing economic inequities.

The White House website says:

“This is no time to build back to the way things were. This is a moment to reimagine and rebuild a new economy. The American Jobs Plan is a historic investment that will create millions of good jobs, rebuild our country’s infrastructure, and position the United States to out-compete China. It will invest in America in a way we have not invested since we built the interstate highways and won the Space Race—positioning the United States to lead in infrastructure and innovation once again.”

This is not the Joe Biden who was viewed little more than a year ago as a cautious, moderate fuddy-duddy trapped in the bygone days of bipartisan amity in the Senate.

This is also not the kind of presidency we saw from Carter, Clinton and Obama. All three spent – some Democrats say wasted – months and even years trying to put together comprehensive but complicated policy initiatives and get Republicans in Congress to vote for them: energy in Carter’s case and healthcare in Clinton’s and Obama’s.

The goals were laudable. But the process was laborious. And the impact was hard for Americans to see and feel.

Roosevelt and Johnson, who was a Roosevelt protege, didn’t make that mistake. Their actions were big and bold, simple and sweeping. They directly affected people.

FDR’s New Deal provided support for farmers, the unemployed, youth and the elderly. He passed banking reforms and financial regulations. And he gave Americans Social Security.

LBJ built on that with Medicare and Medicaid. He passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. His long list of achievements includes – just to name a few – Head Start, Food Stamps, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act and the Highway Beautification Act.

Notably, it’s two Senate veterans, Johnson and Biden, who passed the most sweeping legislation, not the Washington outsiders Carter, Clinton and Obama.

But LBJ’s success was short-lived. Republicans won big in the 1966 midterm elections. Vietnam and racial divisions doomed his Great Society and War on Poverty.

Neither Carter, Clinton nor Obama sustained momentum after their first two years. Carter had problems with the Ted Kennedy wing of his party. Clinton and Obama suffered big losses in their first midterm elections, in 1994 and 2010.

If Biden passes his program, if the country recovers from Covid, if the economy comes back and if Americans decide his program works – all big ifs – he might put an end to Ronald Reagan’s doctrine that government is the problem, not the solution. That philosophy has dominated politics for 40 years.

Biden would go down in history not as a transitional president, but as a transformational one.

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Governor Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and public policy at www.NewDayforNC.com.

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