Throughout his campaign and in the early days of his presidency, Joe Biden has attempted to drape himself in the mantle of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, frequently invoking the name of the New Deal architect in interviews and speeches. Of course, liberal pundits have dutifully parroted this framing in the mainstream press. The best exemplars of this particular brand of partisan mythmaking are Democratic loyalist Jonathan Alter and his daughter Charlotte who wrote matching pieces on the subject in The Daily Beast and Time Magazine, respectively.
Alter the Elder’s article, published on the day of Biden’s inauguration, is titled “Biden’s First 100 Days Will Be the Biggest Since FDR’s.” He writes that Biden’s “American Rescue Plan,” which recently passed the Senate in a narrow party-line vote, is “much more specific — and ambitious — than what FDR did early on.”
He likens Biden’s plan to vaccinate 100 million Americans in 100 days to FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, calling it the “the fastest mobilization in American history.” Biden’s chief of staff hailed this goal as “ambitious,” but the Trump Administration had nearly hit the benchmark of 1 million doses per day by the time Biden took office.
While her father attempted to draw comparisons in the realm of policy, Charlotte focused more on personality and superficial parallels between the historical moments the two presidents occupied. Her opening paragraph:
He ran for President at a time of record unemployment and economic despair, with democracy itself in apparent retreat around the globe. He overcame tremendous personal hardship and promised to heal a battered nation. His friends thought of him as a unifier; his enemies called him a socialist. If this sounds to you like Joe Biden, you’d be right. If this sounds like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, you’d also be right.
These sorts of analogies vastly oversimplify history in order to present Biden as some sort of epoch-making historical figure rather than a mediocre placeholder. Jonathan and Charlotte Alter’s lazy analysis smacks of a “Great Man” narrative that places too much stock in the ability of individual leaders to shape human events.
It doesn’t matter who FDR was. What matters is the times and how he reacted to them. His actions were influenced by a complex set of historical forces that were profoundly different from those acting upon Biden. Surface similarities aside, the conditions that gave rise to the New Deal were nothing like the ones we currently face.
All else being equal, these factors don’t predict that Biden will follow the same path as FDR.
In economic terms, the Great Depression was a far greater crisis than the slump caused by COVID-19. In 1933, one in four people were out of work, whereas official unemployment currently stands at 6.2 percent.
Perhaps more importantly, there was a huge difference in how American labor responded. The Great Depression represented the high point of strike activity in the United States. In one year, there were more than 4,500 work stoppages. Union membership was low at the time — only about 15 percent of the workforce — so most of these were self-organized and driven by radical agitation from leftist militants.
Hunger marches planned by unemployed councils and other grassroots formations complemented labor actions, putting pressure from below on the federal government to implement massive jobs programs, like the Works Progress Administration. When FDR passed pro-labor legislation like the Wagner Act, it was a pragmatic move to stabilize labor relations by channeling mass militancy into an institutional form that could be co-opted.
By contrast, labor struggles are at a historical low in the 21st century. Though there was an uptick in strikes in the two preceding years, 2020 saw only eight involving 1,000 or more workers. The largest of these involved 7,800 workers and lasted for three days. Compare that to the hundreds of thousands of workers from multiple cities and unions who participated in the strikes on West Coast waterfronts in 1934, which stretched out for 83 days.
Rather than spurring workers to fight, the pandemic has created a sense of uncertainty. Whereas the dire circumstances of the 1930s made Americans feel as if they had nothing to lose, the pandemic has only reinforced feelings of precariousness, making workers more risk averse. The uprisings last summer over the killing of George Floyd are the only recent forms of unrest that are even remotely comparable to what occurred during the Great Depression.
Biden’s reaction to those demonstrations has been underwhelming, to put it mildly. The president vocally repudiated calls for defunding during the campaign. In leaked audio from December, he responded with downright hostility to much milder suggestions from Black leaders.
In addition to the fundamental material conditions that spawned the New Deal, there was also a broader ideological context that can’t be overlooked. The depression represented a blow to the legitimacy of capitalism as an institution. Largely insulated from the rest of the global economy, the Soviet Union weathered the first half of the decade quite well, giving the United States’ large and well-organized socialist and communist movement a powerful tool to challenge the existing order.
The theories of economist John Maynard Keynes were also in their ascendancy. Keynes argued that governments should spend their way out of crises and directly put people back to work. By putting these theories into practice, FDR was able to stave off revolution and save capitalism. The New Deal established a Keynesian paradigm that held sway over politics until the 1970s.
Biden is taking office in an era dominated by an entirely different ideology: neoliberalism. The reigning conventional wisdom is that the government should play a minimal role in managing the economy through modest tweaks in monetary policy and strive for a balanced budget by avoiding deficit spending whenever possible.
The power of this neoliberal hegemony can be seen in the way Biden has been successfully backed off of the more progressives proposal originating from the left, like a $15 minimum wage and regular $2,000 survival checks for the duration of the pandemic. During the presidential debates, he made plain his opposition to the Green New Deal after Donald Trump raised some sketchy figures from a rightwing think tank about its supposed costs.
Biden’s cabinet and executive staff has no shortage of deficit hawks, like Ted Kaufman who was engaging in the kind of belt-tightening rhetoric that usually accompanies austerity last fall. Kaufman, who headed Biden’s transition team, said: “When we get in, the pantry is going to be bare.”
Though Biden’s massive relief spending might seem like a departure, it’s only a matter of time before he defaults back to this sort of thinking — especially once Republicans and moderates in his own party begin harping on the national debt.
To the extent that Biden is embracing public spending as a means of stimulating the economy, it’s a far cry from Roosevelt’s New Deal. Programs like the CCC, the WPA and the Tennessee Valley Authority directly employed millions of people. The green jobs program favored by Biden’s primary opponent Bernie Sanders would do this, but Biden prefers more modest measures, like financing the replacement of federal fleet vehicles with green cars.
His infrastructure plan, which has also been hailed as FDR-like, will heavily rely on public-private partnerships unlike New Deal infrastructure projects that were wholly under the management of the federal government. In practice, it’s barely distinguishable from Trump’s.
In material terms, Biden is swayed more by his wealthy donors, to whom he made the promise that “nothing will fundamentally change” than he is by any pressures from organized labor. Ideologically, he’s still guided by questionable common sense of fiscal discipline and the politics of triangulation.
Biden won’t be a new FDR unless he faces a deeper crisis deepens, a more credible threat from an organized left or both.