In looking at the nearly $5 trillion in proposed spending in the Biden budget, people are wondering, “What happened to the Joe Biden who ran for president by citing his 36-year record as a moderate dealmaker in the Senate?”
The answer is that, at age 78, he has bought into the belief that he has only a little time to become a transformational president and leave a legacy of “greatness.” In Washington speak, that means adding to the size of government and ridding oneself of any notion you can spend too much money.
As National Review editor Rich Lowry points out, bills in the Senate still require 60 votes to break a filibuster. Much of what Biden wants will crash against that barrier. But there’s an exception. He can pass his stimulus and infrastructure bills under budget-reconciliation rules in the Senate that require only 50 votes — thus his “stimulus” and “infrastructure” bills.
Biden has also been bewitched by a parade of liberal court historians who have met with him. Their implied message: Because of his age, he’s likely to be a one-term president, but he can still go down in history if he creates his own New Deal or Great Society, and uses executive orders to reform our entire immigration system and to redress income inequality.
A key White House meeting with presidential historians and Biden took place on March 2. It was organized by Jon Meacham, the presidential biographer and sometime Biden speechwriter whom Axios calls Biden’s “historical muse.” Others present were LBJ biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential biographer Michael Beschloss, Yale’s Joanne Freeman, race scholar Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown, Harvard’s Annette Gordon-Reed, and Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson. All are conventional progressives or leftists.
Their discussion centered on just how much radical change a president could jam through in a short time frame. Beschloss told Axios that FDR and LBJ were the closest analogues for the Biden era, “in terms of transforming the country in important ways in a short time.”
Biden peppered his visitors with questions about the expansive use of presidential power. Axios reported that “he loves the growing narrative that he’s bolder and bigger-thinking than President Obama,” the man he served as vice president for eight years. “The historians’ views were very much in sync with his own: It is time to go even bigger and faster than anyone expected. If that means chucking the filibuster and bipartisanship, so be it.”
Indeed, The Hill newspaper reports that “the White House wants to change how people perceive bipartisanship, arguing that if they put forward proposals that are backed by Republicans, they should be seen as bipartisan even if GOP lawmakers in Washington don’t vote for them.” In a nearly Orwellian twist, Biden officials will argue that “some of the ideas have been backed by GOP lawmakers in the past” and that that should satisfy the need to reach out to the other side.
An unspoken assumption at the historians’ meeting was that everyone there believed that Biden doesn’t have much time. Although he told reporters recently that he plans to run again in 2024, when he will be 82 years old, former Obama-campaign strategist David Axelrod said last week that the odds of that are “pretty remote.”
Biden may think he’s writing himself into future history books by emulating FDR’s and LBJ’s moves to expand government. But Amity Shlaes, a historian who has written best-selling histories of the New Deal and the Great Society, says that’s misreading their record. “Political success is not the same as economic success,’” she told me. “Toward the end of their time in office, economic reality forced both Presidents Roosevelt and Johnson to recognize this.”
Roosevelt was able to pivot in his third term to fighting World War II, and that pivot served to obscure the disappointing economic record of his first two terms, prior to World War II. Johnson found himself unable to pivot — he was already mired in Vietnam. In the end, the failures of Johnson’s Great Society forced him to retreat into “smallness” and plead for “austerity,” a policy that was the opposite of his grand goals.
In a speech on March 18, 1968, Johnson warned that “many needed actions” would have to be postponed by cuts to the budget:
I ask all of you to join in a program of national austerity to insure that our economy will prosper and that our fiscal position will be sound. . . . I am consulting with the Congress now on proposals for savings in our national budget — in nondefense, non-Vietnam, in other items all across the board.
For his part, Roosevelt originally proposed his New Deal because, as he explained in his famous inaugural address of 1933, “our greatest primary task is to put people to work.” Yet, while unemployment in the 1930s did drop, the average unemployment rate in FDR’s first two terms (before the war) was just below 15 percent. Eight years into his presidency, unemployment still stood above 14 percent. Today’s unemployment rate is less than half that, 6 percent, and yet we are told we are in a crisis of epic proportions that requires radical change.
After-tax worker incomes also crashed under FDR and throughout World War II. What ended the Herbert Hoover–FDR Great Depression was not the New Deal but the dramatic harnessing of new production to fight World War II.
So FDR slashed nondefense spending by 22 percent between 1939 and 1942. By 1944, pillars of the New Deal such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Work Projects Administration that represented one-eighth of the federal budget were abolished.
As for LBJ, even he expressed private regret in retirement over how some of his Great Society programs had been captured by “hucksters” and “incompetents” He also had always believed that the programs would be paid for by economic growth, not punishing taxes. Doris Kearns Goodwin has reported that when Johnson assumed the presidency in 1963, one of his first policy statements was “I’m going to get Kennedy’s tax cut out of the Senate Finance Committee, and we’re going to get this economy humming again.”
LBJ succeeded. His 1964 tax bill cut federal income taxes by some 20 percent across the board, and that turbocharged years of strong economic growth. Then overspending and the Vietnam War’s overheating of the economy led to stagflation.
Somehow, I think that even FDR and LBJ would caution President Biden that it’s understandable for him to try to get into the history books — but not at the risk of creating a fiscal Pearl Harbor or Vietnam for the country.
Amity Shlaes wasn’t at the historians’ meeting at the White House last month. But if she had a chance to speak to Biden, she would note that when presidents reach for “greatness,” they do best “when they apply it to America’s institutions and citizens, not presidential greatness or great government endeavors, which so often morph into folly,” she wrote in The Hill. “If more politicians, including presidents, acquainted themselves with this evidence, the outcomes might be good — if not great.”
Instead, the country may well suffer in many ways if Biden succeeds in grasping for the fool’s gold of what he perceives as “greatness.”