It is not just the temptation of the media but also of academics and historians, trying to compare and contrast one president with another as they complete their first 100 days in office. President Joseph Biden is no exception: a raft of articles have appeared in the American media on how the 46th president is so similar or dissimilar to presidents Franklin D Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson or wondering if he is the mere repudiator of the Reagan style of policies and governance. In all this, people have not forgotten the hoopla when Bill Clinton came to the White House in 1993 and was compared to John F Kennedy. In fact, some even compared Donald Trump to Ronald Reagan!
Roosevelt and Johnson are remembered in American history for different reasons — FDR for presiding over at a very difficult time in the Great Depression, when not only the country was battling its worst economic crisis with a total collapse of the banking system, but also a society that was at the very bottom of its confidence; and Johnson for his Great Society Reforms, the civil and voting rights acts and reforms that established the basis of what African Americans and minorities had been longing for a long time. That Johnson’s reforms are now being systematically torn down in some states in the guise of ensuring fair rights of voters is for all to see. In fact the Great Society Reforms were not that well appreciated down the years as a result of the hugely unpopular Vietnam War that Johnson escalated in 1964-65 at his own political peril.
On the eve of his 100 days in office — a time-frame that is observed from the FDR presidency — Biden addressed a joint session of Congress, an event that had its share of symbolism, substance and atmospherics. Behind the president’s podium sat two women for the first time ever — Vice-President Kamala Harris and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi; the Biden administration has been credited with filling 58 per cent of posts with women and the White House not falling too far behind; and perhaps for the first time gays, lesbians and differently challenged persons are getting a fair shake in senior official positions.
The political landscape of Biden was not a bed of roses by any stretch of imagination. Politically, it was raucous with right wing conservatives and extremists wreaking havoc on Capitol Hill just days before the formal inauguration; the pandemic had taken a toll of more than 400,000 lives by January 20; the economy was in shambles; the educational system in tatters and the mood of the country at an all-time low. Supporters of Biden both within Democrats and outside argue that the president not only came to terms with the medical and social aspects of the virus but was also quick to pass the nearly $2 trillion stimulus plan that put $1,400 in taxpayers’ pockets.
Biden followed this by another $2 trillion-plus for infrastructure spending and announcing a similar $ 2trillion for basic school education, community colleges, child and health care, all with a view to accelerating economic growth. In all this the president was making one thing very clear: that the era of Big Government is back, in the same fashion as Roosevelt. But the comparison between Biden and FDR, or for that matter between Biden and LBJ, cannot be stretched beyond a point. The political environments of the 1930s and the 1960s were quite different than the one faced by Biden, in the sense that Democrats had vast majorities in the House and the Senate that both Roosevelt and Johnson used to their advantage. At the time of FDR it used to be said that legislations came in the morning and were out of the way by evening. And the burly Texan LBJ knew his way around Congress, given his time there, which is why John Kennedy even selected him to be his running mate. Biden has nothing of the kind: about five Democrats extra in the House; and flat even in the Senate counting two Independents.
In his first 100 days Biden looked as if he had bitten off more than he could chew. Aside from his COVID stimulus cheque that he managed to get through the Senate through a procedural clause, for every one of his other plans, which already come close to more than $6 trillion, no one has calculated what the tab for slavery reparations will be. Republicans have made it clear that they are looking at a fight that will leave Democrats well short of the 60 votes needed in the Senate to advance major legislations. Thus far all of the major legislations that have cleared have been on a strictly party line vote with not a single Republican voting in favour of anything that the Democrats have proposed. The White House has said that spending on social programmes – that the Grand Old Party has said is nothing more than a wasteful socialist agenda – will come from tax increases on the rich over a ten-year period. The Republicans will fight tooth and nail over anything to do withraising taxes; and Biden has to keep his progressives in line, which is not an easy task.
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Biden is not naïve even if some Republicans may believe that he is. He has been in Washington for about 44 years, 36 years as a lawmaker and eight years as vice-president. He is aware of his legislative troubles and the prospect of zero bipartisanship. Biden also knows that given the margins in the House and the Senate his proposals will be watered down to satisfy demands of every lawmaker. And in spite of all the dilutions there is still no guarantee that legislations will pass. That being the case, why does Biden still persist? It comes from a political perspective of not fearing a loss — but to raise the bar and pin down Republicans repeatedly even to the point to a loss, so that the right wing and extremist agenda becomes very apparent going into 2022 and 2024.
A former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and United Nations the writer is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication in the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.