In this post, Michael Reynolds explores President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office. He compares Biden’s efforts to rescue the American economy from the COVID-19 pandemic to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and his battle to end the Great Depression. He also discusses Biden’s emerging progressivism and the ways it is similar and different to Roosevelt’s.
The fact is that no American president since Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson or Franklin D. Roosevelt has had to face the challenges that President Biden faced on his election day: a country torn by political division unseen since 1861, a pandemic not experienced since 1918, and a financial crisis on a scale unparalleled since 1932. Whilst history, as Thucydides tells us, does not quite repeat itself, we may find some similarities in the approaches of Biden and Roosevelt as reflected in the challenges of 2021 and 1932, respectively. In 1932, Roosevelt faced the greatest financial crisis in United States history, but in 2021 Biden faces possibly a greater challenge.
The United States then, as now, had suffered from the ineffective leadership of populist demagogy. This led to a bitterly divided people and Congress resulting in an attack on the citadel of American democracy: the Capitol.
When Roosevelt became president, he closed the banks to prevent a run on the dollar. When Biden became president, he issued numerous executive orders countermanding the damaging effects of his predecessor’s actions. Above all, measures were taken to save the lives of American citizens from COVID-19, a disease whose existence was largely ignored by his predecessor.
The mood on the day of Roosevelt ’s inauguration was described by a New York Times reporter as that which ‘might be found in a beleaguered capital in wartime.’ This might parallel the extraordinary measures taken by the security forces at the Capitol in Washington on 20 January 2021 after Trump supporters besieged the building two weeks earlier. Certainly, both inaugural moods were sombre, possibly Biden’s more so because of the spiralling death toll and the sparsity of the audience. In 1932 Roosevelt declared that all the people had to fear was fear itself: the fear of unemployment and poverty. In his 2021 inaugural, Biden declared that it was a ‘day of history and hope’ but that few periods of history had been more challenging for America. Roosevelt promised immediate action to meet the financial emergency and Biden promised massive vaccination to curb the pandemic. Both took urgent constructive steps in their first hundred days to meet the challenge. In both cases critics were surprised at their effectiveness in meeting the crisis. In Biden’s case 200 million doses of vaccine were administered. In Roosevelt’s case the run on the banks was prevented.
In some respects, there is similarity between Roosevelt and Biden, the awareness of suffering and the empathy that was shown by Roosevelt for those who suffered and feared from the Depression, those dispossessed of their homes, those going hungry and those suffering in health. Biden is no stranger to personal tragedy, and neither was Roosevelt who was struck down by polio earlier in his political career. Like Roosevelt, Biden in his first hundred days has not ignored those who have suffered from the pandemic and the financial crisis.
Biden’s first 100 days may not measure Roosevelt’s in terms of financial measures but the fundamental policy objective appears to be similar. A few weeks ago, Biden met with some leading historians and in discussion with Doris Kearns Goodwin and others about his predecessors commented ‘I’m no FDR, but …’ It may be that Roosevelt is a tempting model to follow in terms of emerging from the crisis but times are different and the message of Biden’s inaugural is to unite the country and only then can it revive. However, Michael Beschloss is reported as saying that ‘FDR and LBJ may turn out to be the past century’s closest analogues for the Biden era, “in terms of transforming the country in important ways in a short time.”’ Beschloss compared Biden’s approach to Roosevelt’s New Deal of 1933.
There are other similarities in that Roosevelt was a progressive and believed in big government for the people by the people investing in public works and social security. Biden imitates this in terms of a progressive policy towards public works, transportation, child welfare and above all eliminating the pandemic and its underlying consequences. Again, that has overtones of the New Deal policy and possibly some reflections of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
What Roosevelt did in 1932 was to wage war against the emergency: the economic crisis. At his inaugural Biden declared that America was facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression as well as the worst attack on American democracy since the Civil War. Biden countered that with his call for unity and hope. Whilst in 1932 Roosevelt spoke of ‘nothing to fear but fear itself ‘Biden spoke of choosing ‘hope over fear, truth over lies.’
In many respects Biden’s progressive policies reflect Roosevelt’s New Deal in terms of emergency measures. In Biden’s case a $1.9 trillion relief package, a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, as well as $25 billion for new childcare facilities and $400 billion for affordable housing or community-based care.
Whereas in 1932 Roosevelt had to deal with a grave economic crisis, Biden has to deal not only with a similar financial crisis on the same scale but a human cost of the pandemic that has killed more Americans than America lost in World War II. History teaches us that America eventually recovered from its economic crises in the 1930s ameliorated by Roosevelt ‘s policies and survived. It remains to be seen how far Biden’s policies will succeed, but like Roosevelt before him, he has given America hope and an example to America’s friends and allies.
Michael Reynolds PhD (LSE, Law), LLM (Lond.), MSc (Lond.), FCIArb is a Visiting Senior Research fellow at the Department of International History, London School of Economics. He is the author of Instruments of Peace-making 1870-1914 to be published in July. He is a lawyer and chartered arbitrator by profession and a Senior Law Lecturer in Private International Law and Course Leader of the International Programme at the University of East London.
Featured Image: Joseph R. Biden, Jr. is sworn as the 46th President of the United States by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. alongside his wife, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden outside the U.S. Capitol on 20 January 2021. Photo from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Wikimedia Commons.