Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
There have been 21 U.S Presidents since the year 1900. To my mind, two of them are paradigm changing, standing head and shoulders above their contemporaries for their impact and legacy.
The first (and last) president to serve for more than two terms, Franklin Roosevelt, is one. Roosevelt is perhaps the most celebrated ‘modern’ President. Indeed, alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, he is ranked most often in the ‘Top 3’ presidents of all time. Roosevelt dealt with two great battles during his four terms; the first being The Great Depression, the next the Second World War. In dealing with these, he greatly expanded the size of the federal government through the Social Security Act, was ahead of his time on race and was the first media savvy President.
The second paradigm shifter is Ronald Reagan- in many ways an anathema to Roosevelt. Where the former increased the size of the federal government, the latter took a knife to it like a butcher does a carcass. One often remembered quote is when he described the nine most terrifying words to here as “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”. Now often remembered as a conservative hero, Reagan was immensely popular across the nation. In 1980, he defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter by 9% in the popular vote, winning 44 out of 50 states. Four years later, he won by 18.8%, carrying 49 states.
What these two men have in common, that even their impactful successors and predecessors (Lyndon Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt or Bill Clinton) lack, is that every President for a generation played on their turf. Indeed, both were succeeded by those in their own party; the last two times that one party has held the White House beyond two terms. The electoral coalition Roosevelt created in 1932- dubbed the ‘New Deal Consensus’- would last until at least 1968, and his ideological prism constrained Presidents of all political colours. Likewise, Ronald Reagan’s low-tax, low-spending, trickledown economics has restrained every President since.
Make no mistake, the 21st of the Presidents since 1900 has the chance to be the third paradigm shifting President since 1900. Six months ago, I wrote that Biden’s biggest advantage was low expectations and his unassuming nature. Apologies for crowing, but he is proving me right.
It is not just the size of his Bills- although the $1.9t Coronavirus Relief package, his Americans Jobs Plan that could cost 2$t, and his American Families Plan- which could run to $1.8t- are transformational. It is their purpose. These ‘Big Three’ move the needle in American politics. If Reagan’s ‘low tax’ agenda has been the most important American political paradigm since 1980, then Biden has stuck to fingers up to it. Indeed, his first address to a joint session of Congress- celebrating his 100 days- Biden asserted that “trickle down has never worked”. He has also been described as the Anti-Reagan, insisting the government is the solution- not the “problem”. Observers, however, have commented that Biden is being rather Reagan-esque- in style, not substance. Reagan had an infectious confidence, a power for story-telling and an optimism that struck a chord with American voters. Biden’s speech oozed Reagan-like confidence, and a faith in America that might well prove equally effective electorally as his antithesis.
The fixation with these 100 days is Roosevelt-ian legacy, and Biden has been keen to play up ‘New Deal’ comparisons. The comparison does have legs. Roosevelt was eager to disavow ‘socialism’ and disdained any ideological label. He saw himself as a pragmatist, same as Biden. Just as Roosevelt disavowed labels and implemented policies which last to this day, Biden can dodge political soubriquets and erect a playing field that might dictate American politics for decade to come- creating a paradigm of higher taxation, bigger government and a more level playing field.
The big ‘if’ is whether the latter two of Biden’s ‘Big Three’ will pass. Even if they do, problems will still exist- notably the brewing crisis on the southern border and America’s foreign policy towards China and the Middle East. Nonetheless, Biden has a chance now to shape domestic American politics for 40 years.
In the face of the twin crises of pandemic and insurrection, ‘Sleepy Joe’ is proving anything but dull and far, far from impotent.