Joe Biden Never Wanted a Roosevelt-Style Presidency

Harvey J. Kaye

When Joe Biden was inaugurated a year ago, many expected his presidency to emulate the reforming ambition of FDR’s New Deal. But that ignores what made the New Deal possible: a climate of militant agitation and a populist president willing to align himself with it.

One year into Joe Biden's presidency, comparisons to FDR and New Deal policy haven't aged well. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Luke Savage

In a near-exact repeat of 2009, Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory prompted a flurry of speculation about a transformative political moment in the making. For the first few months of the Biden presidency, even critics on the Left perceived something of a break from the norm as the administration tabled big spending plans and quickly passed the American Rescue Plan. Others, meanwhile, remained skeptical of the burgeoning comparisons to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, which became something of a cottage industry throughout the media.

In the following interview, conducted exactly one year after Biden’s inauguration, Jacobin’s Luke Savage sat down with prominent New Deal historian Harvey J. Kaye for a wide-ranging discussion of the administration’s first year in office, the political battles of the 1930s, and why Biden has fallen far short of the gushing proclamations that initially heralded his election.


LS

How would you characterize the New Deal as a political settlement? What were its constitutive elements beyond specific pieces of legislation that passed through Congress?

HJK

Whenever I’m asked to talk about or interview on the New Deal and Second World War, people want me to focus on FDR. But when I wrote The Fight for the Four Freedoms, I did so to redeem not only FDR but also the generation that became the Greatest Generation — indeed, the generation that, to my mind, was the most progressive generation in American history. I think there emerged a real democratic and decidedly progressive dialectic between a president and a people in those years — a dialectic in which a democratic leader and a democratic people inspire and encourage, challenge and compel, and enable and propel each other to transcend themselves and the status quo.

There’s no question that FDR ran a progressive campaign in 1932, in some ways a radical one. As governor of New York he had pursued progressive initiatives, and was determined to pursue them as president to fight the Great Depression. Too many historians fail to appreciate that. As a consequence of his campaign, major union leaders like Sidney Hillman and John Lewis (Hillman was a socialist and Lewis a Republican) imagined an FDR presidency would afford real possibilities for labor and working people. Incumbent Herbert Hoover, in classic Republican fashion, accused FDR of being a radical (which, in that moment, could have meant either a fascist or a communist!) — and, notably, Roosevelt himself told a close friend that America needed to go “fairly radical for at least a generation.”

So there’s no removing FDR from the front of the picture. But when he was running, in 1932, he told a journalist that he didn’t want to get too far out in front of the American people. At the same time, American working people themselves were not passive. Workers, employed and unemployed, were marching (both socialists and communists had organized “unemployed leagues”). World War I veterans had staged a massive occupation of DC demanding their promised veterans’ bonuses. Workers fought corporate goons. Farmers in the Midwest organized boycotts and direct actions to block deliveries to market. Leftist college students were organizing youth groups and connecting with labor. All of which made politicians anxious. But it also gave FDR a certain confidence that Americans wanted not just relief but also real political and economic change.

Still, while there was already a climate of agitation when FDR ran for the presidency, it would be too much of an exaggeration to say, as some do, that a socialist revolution was imminent and that the purpose of FDR’s presidency was to prevent it from happening. More likely than socialism at that time was the possibility of fascism (especially if the elites had their way). Don’t forget, we’re talking about the likes of Mussolini and Hitler over in Europe when these events are taking place in the United States. Vanity Fair magazine even ran a piece calling on Congress to “Appoint a Dictator!” And the president of the American Political Science Association gave a lecture in which he said, “Perhaps we shall have a dictator. Perhaps we shall go fascist . . . someday (possibly) communist.”

But FDR truly did believe in small-d democracy. And I know many people on the Left won’t buy what I’m about to say, but I believe the Roosevelt presidency didn’t save capitalism so much as it saved liberal democracy. Almost immediately, in the first hundred days of his first term, FDR and his New Dealers went big, really big. They enacted the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), the Federal Emergency Relief Act, the Banking Act, the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and a host of other measures to provide relief, provide jobs, stimulate economic recovery, subject corporate and financial activity to democratic public oversight and regulation, engage the energies of workers and farmers. Clearly, at the outset, FDR was willing to invite capital into this New Deal coalition.

But at the very same time, each of the major bills — especially the NIRA and the AAA — had built into them popular grassroots participation: consumer, worker, and farmer advisory boards. In fact, everyone thinks about the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (aka the Wagner Act) as the beginning of FDR’s empowerment of workers. But, assuredly pushed by labor leaders and New York senator Robert Wagner, FDR projected the idea of industrial democracy from the outset, in 1933, by including the right of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively in the NIRA.

So the New Deal entailed not simply big government initiatives advanced by a president eager to harness American energies in favor of economic recovery, but also that president responding to popular aspirations and engaging, empowering, and encouraging popular democratic action — which led to millions of workers organizing unions; women in all their diversity across the country creating what the Nation called the first ever “National Housewives movement” to keep an eye on capital and business; and black civil rights struggles emerging anew, North and South — not to mention, as Michael Denning has written, the formation of a broad left popular front, a “cultural front” of artists, writers, actors, and musicians that wonderfully transformed American public life.

So, to me, the term “New Deal” refers to a period in which there was not merely terrible trials and tribulations and big government initiatives to address them but also a helluva lot of democratic ferment and radicalism from the bottom up — which, crucially, FDR himself welcomed, if not actually desired, for it empowered him against capital and conservatives.

LS

Roosevelt wielded big congressional majorities and won landslide victories in the electoral college thanks to an expansive coalition that spanned black voters, organized labor, southern Dixiecrats, urban political machines, and many other groups.

Even so, he faced considerable opposition and was forced into plenty of compromises. Can you describe the resistance that Roosevelt and the New Deal faced during the 1930s? What was the nature and scale of the opposition?

HJK

The first thing to remember is that, although he had a Democratic majority from the outset, that majority included Southern Democrats — Jim Crow white supremacists — who, as much as they were eager to get New Deal dollars flowing into their states (Southern legislators have always been very happy for federal dollars to pour into their states), did not want those dollars to underwrite programs that would in any way subvert segregation and improve black lives. And they were a powerful cohort.

The South was basically a one-party region of the country, and, once you were elected, you were essentially elected for life — which meant that when the Democrats were in power, the congressional committees were often chaired, due to seniority rules, by Southerners who were fiercely determined to defend states’ rights and segregation.

Everyone says Biden doesn’t have the Congress that FDR had. But as I said, FDR had to deal with lawmakers from the South who were eager to take federal dollars but were not willing to go along with the kind of New Deal initiatives he wanted to pursue.

LS

Though clearly quite different moments, some parallels do come to mind when thinking about 1933 and 2021. Most obviously, the economic context was one of tremendous insecurity. But there were also deep-seated fears about rising authoritarianism and the increasingly sinister direction of travel on the Right. Those things at least partly informed the comparisons between the two presidents that were in full bloom a year ago.

But Biden also came out of the gate with legislative proposals that were larger in scale than anything we’d seen under Obama, which only bolstered the FDR comparisons. I’m curious what you made of these at the time, and also how well you think they’ve held up now that we’re exactly one year into the Biden administration?

HJK

I remember doing a lot of podcasts and YouTube shows last year in which I was trying to tell people that it was definitely jumping the gun to call Biden the new FDR. And yet I confess that there were moments early on where I thought maybe I was wrong — for example, when the American Rescue Plan was passed. But as I would go on to say: FDR made clear from his first days in the White House that the New Deal would necessarily involve not only relief and recovery but also reform and reconstruction. He spoke of the imperative of affording Americans “economic security” — and he made it clear in public speeches and “fireside chats” that doing so would necessitate a redistribution of power and wealth.

Back to Biden. There were three things that also happened very quickly which worried me a great deal — which showed me that Biden might have hung a portrait of FDR in the Oval Office, but that didn’t guarantee an FDR-like presidency. The first was the child tax credit that was projected to lift half of all America’s poor kids out of poverty. All I could think was, “Why only half of them?” Plus, it was only put on the books for one year. What would happen then, I asked? Biden and company didn’t even get it extended to 2022, when the Democrats would be running for reelection.

The second worrisome thing was that Biden wasn’t speaking in a way that might have enthused and encouraged Americans to turn out, as FDR would say, to “make me do it.” It all seemed like the makings of another Obama administration (when, of course, Biden was VP). There had been all this chanting of “Yes we can” — and yet, as soon as Obama became president, the chant was not to be heard. Obama in his inaugural address talked about the sacrifices we’d all have to make, implying that all of us were responsible for the economic crisis, which was utterly ridiculous. When did President Obama ever speak to mobilize, and now, when has Biden ever spoken in any way like FDR on class power — that is, like the FDR who from the very beginning talked about the “titans of industry,” the “money changers,” the “economic royalists” whose power needed to be overthrown just as the power and authority of the “political royalists” had to be overthrown in 1776?

Finally, I was also struck and, to put it mildly, disappointed that when Bernie Sanders wanted to include the $15-an-hour minimum wage in the relief and recovery plan, eight Democratic senators voted no (including Biden’s apparent mentee Delaware senator Chris Coons). Where was Biden? That was telling.

You want to be like FDR? Well, you have to engage and empower working people. That’s essential, and, of course, Biden hasn’t pursued that. Had I been in a position to advise Biden, I would have suggested that among the first things he should have done was to make sure he worked like hell to pass voting rights and workers’ rights bills. He appointed as his secretary of labor Marty Walsh, who had a good reputation with labor, and who might have invited the union movement to turn out and maybe even march on Washington to secure the PRO Act. In other words, if you’re going to go after things that are big, you have to have big energy propelling you. The liberal mainstream media celebrated Biden, saying workers had a legal right to organize. Hell, he should have taken the show on the road to where workers were organizing — which I would note FDR essentially did in 1934 when he came to Green Bay and spoke of working people’s rights while workers at the Kohler plant, sixty miles south, were on strike.

After the American Rescue Plan, Biden and the Democrats needed to — indeed, wanted to — pursue reconstruction and reform. Reconstruction was going to be part of the big $6 trillion bill that’s been slashed down again and again — by Democrats no less, not just Republicans. Then the Democratic congressional leaders split the “bipartisan” reconstruction bill from the grander plan of reconstruction and reform, which they had promised they would not.

Biden as FDR? I repeat: if Biden really wanted an FDR-like administration, what he should have done immediately was figure out how to engage and empower working people. And think about what we’ve seen these last several months: working people making it very clear how dissatisfied they are with their jobs and the exploitation they endure; high profile strikes; and Biden sinking in the polls. The administration could have aligned itself more assertively with workers. They have chosen not to (so far).

LS

What’s your response to the rejoinder that the Biden presidency couldn’t meaningfully mirror FDR’s because of its comparatively small congressional majority?

HJK

I want to take us back to when Bernie was running, particularly during the 2020 campaign, and there was a town hall on CNN, I recall. It may have been Anderson Cooper who asked him a question to the effect of, “You’ve got quite an agenda. What happens if you win the presidency and Congress stands in the way of enacting and realizing it?” Bernie replied that that was when the American people would have to step forward. They would have to be outside the windows, making it clear why they voted the way they voted and what it was they wanted.

He had that phrase “Not me, us,” which was really a double-edged thing. A lot of people gave it a moral spin, because Bernie asked, “Are you willing to fight for someone you don’t know?” But he was also saying, “I can’t do this by myself.” Incidentally, I. F. Stone used to tell the story about a reform group visiting DC to meet with FDR. Sitting in the Oval Office, they were ardently making their case. And FDR eventually said to them, “Look, I’m on your side. Now you have to make me do it. Now go on out and bring pressure on me.” Which meant, “I have to deal with a Congress that may not buy it, so you have to make me do it in the sense that I have to be able to say, ‘Look! This is what the American people want. We have to do it.’”

And that’s exactly what happened when labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, came to the White House. Hearing FDR’s Four Freedoms speech in January 1941, Randolph thought, “Now is the time to demand that the federal government force the defense industries to open up to black labor.” Directing the members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to organize black groups across the country, Randolph mobilized what would become known as the March on Washington Movement.

His original plan called for a march of ten thousand African Americans in DC. Fearing violence in segregated DC, FDR sent Eleanor Roosevelt to try to dissuade him. But Randolph did not back down. So FDR invited him to the White House. And when FDR asked how many people Randolph expected to attend the march, Randolph replied one hundred thousand. Probably surprised, impressed, and worried, FDR said, “I guess we ought to do something!” and proceeded to draft and issue two executive orders, the latter of which established the Fair Employment Practice Committee that was charged with assuring that companies receiving federal contracts had to open up to black workers. The movement persisted, but the march was called off. (Though Randolph later revived the idea and — assisted by Bayard Rustin and UAW leader Walter Reuther — staged the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.)

For all of FDR’s moral and political sins — such as the Japanese American internment, the segregation of blacks in the military, the failure to purge the State Department of antisemites and get Congress to lift the refugee quotas — he was a progressive and a social democrat (read his 1944 speech calling for an economic bill of rights) who fought both capital and conservatives. And, I repeat, he did so by encouraging and empowering working people. In 1935, he stated, “New laws, in themselves, do not bring a millennium” — which was to say the struggle does not end when the law is enacted.

In 2016 — thinking of FDR and watching the primary campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — I started telling people who asked me how to judge politicians: Don’t vote for the candidate who wants to be your champion and declares they’re gonna fight for you; vote for the candidate who encourages the fight in you. I don’t remember ever hearing Biden doing that. (I think Branko Marcetic’s book Yesterday’s Man is spot on as far as Biden’s career and core instincts are concerned.) Many of us hoped that Bernie had gotten through to Biden — and he may well have gotten through in terms of “going big.” But if Biden had truly wanted to go big, he needed to go out and engage working Americans in the fight.

And even if we had failed, we would at least have known he trusted and had confidence in us — just as our parents and grandparents knew of FDR, whom they elected as their president four times.