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Joe Biden and His Inner FDR

Before the election, Joe Biden was probably inclined to morph into a modern-day Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Can he still?

December 6, 2020

Joe Biden standing in front of the American flag

All indications are that President-elect Joe Biden, in keeping with his long-time political style, will seek a bipartisan approach.

But in executing his vision, he faces a significant political problem: There are no moderates left among Republicans in the U.S. Senate. And he needs their cooperation to see through legislative initiatives he deems important.

When Republican recalcitrance rules supreme

Even now, well before his inauguration on January 20th, 2021, Joe Biden must have realized that his accommodating approach which controversially even allowed him to work with segregationists some decades ago, will fall entirely flat.

The downside for Mr. Biden is that his approval ratings could quickly plummet as his presidency will increasingly look like an empty shell.

Mitch McConnell and “Carterizing” Biden

Indeed, if the Republican Party’s new strongman, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has his druthers, he will make President Biden look like another coming of Jimmy Carter — a likable, but highly ineffectual President.

That would be all the more stinging — and pleasing to the Republicans — as Mr. Biden, in contrast to President Carter in the 1970s, is certainly anything but a novice to Washington.

Biden will seek to resist

Rest assured, to fend off this depressing scenario, Joe Biden will speak in a presidential tone. Yes, he will turn down the volume of discord.

And yes, he will likely have competent people in place who will be given the authority to manage the crises of our times, including the coronavirus. Whether they will be confirmed by the hyper-partisan minded Republicans in the U.S. Senate is another question altogether.

Soon enough, it will become unmistakably clear that all that Republicans are aiming for during Biden’s term is to overturn the 2020 election results and elect another loose cannon to run (successfully) for president in 2024. Think Ivanka Trump, Marco Rubio – or both on the same Republican ticket.

Biden and the FDR moment

Given the utter Republican recalcitrance that is to be expected, the only slim hope there was for the governing style what Mr. Biden had hoped for — a transformative presidency devoted to healing the nation — at this stage has moved from a “could have been” status to the “won’t happen” category.

The Republicans’ gridlock strategy will rule the day. Knowing that they have the Supreme Court in their pocket as a third super-legislative force, Republicans will see next to no need to compromise.

Unless, of course, President Biden is prepared to take up Mr. McConnell on his deliberately divisive offer to force the Democratic President to meet him so deep on Republican territory that the latter would risk splitting the Democratic Party by accepting McConnell’s offer.

Splitting the Democratic Party into a centrist party and a progressive party is undoubtedly a key objective of Republicans.

After all, this would further protect the Republicans against their de facto minority status in the United States, which gives them disproportionate levels of political power due to the very peculiar structures of the U.S. constitution (see Electoral College and composition of the U.S. Senate, both of which militate against modernity and democratic fairness).

What could have been

Equipped with a Senate majority (still possible but unlikely following two Georgia runoff races in January), however slim, Joe Biden would probably have aimed for the inner FDR in him.

Remember that Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States’ 32nd President and the only four-term President in U.S. history, was — like Biden — anything but a progressive by nature.

Unlike Joe Biden, FDR was born into privilege. As the late Democratic Governor of Texas, Ann Richards, would later say about President George H.W. Bush, FDR was born “with a silver spoon in his mouth.”

FDR was a moderate and prohibitionist for much of his political career. However, he sharply turned course when faced with the unspeakable human toll of the Great Depression.

FDR’s “relief, recovery and reform” and today’s U.S.

Joe Biden faces a nation in crisis like no other U.S. President has since 1933. When inaugurated on January 20, 2021, Biden will be confronted with an unprecedented public health crisis and an economy in tatters.

He would be well advised to take a page out of FDR’s playbook. While Biden’s political platform will be less ambitious than FDR’s, it might focus on the same purposes as FDR’s New Deal, “relief, recovery and reform.”

Indeed, this is exactly what is required now. But Joe Biden would need to act quickly. After all, it was during the first 100 days of his presidency, that FDR oversaw an unprecedented amount of new legislation in Congress.

Biden has to dig deep

In order to maximize his effectiveness as President, Joe Biden must be realistic. The Republicans will seek to grind him down in trench warfare from the get-go. Therefore, he must use all his formal and informal powers to enact reforms.

FDR’s famous fireside chats, where he explained pressing matters to anxious Americans on the radio in a calm and measured way, were his secret sauce.

While they cannot be replicated in the modern media environment, FDR’s real asset was his empathy for those who were suffering. Against heavy opposition initially, he pursued legislative actions to give his audience relief in the short run.

In addition to helping them recover over the medium term, FDR also reformed the U.S. economy so that the middle class benefitted in the long run.

These outcomes were no accident. They were the result of FDR’s emotional intelligence, which was formed through his own personal tragedies.

Joe Biden also possesses the gift of empathy. He has also seen plenty of personal tragedy. While like FDR, he is completely unlike Mr. Trump. And he is also different from Barack Obama (who was too cerebral for American tastes) and Bill Clinton (for whom empathy mostly seemed like a vote-getting “schtick”).

A man who can really say “I feel your pain”

Biden’s own suffering has made him sensitive to the anxieties, fears and worries of others. Just after he was elected to the U.S. Senate for the first time, Biden lost his first wife and his infant daughter in a car accident in December 1972.

Biden’s two young sons, Beau and Hunter, survived in serious condition. His son Beau died in 2015 from brain cancer. In addition, Joe Biden suffers from a stutter for which he was bullied during his own childhood.

All of this makes for a man, who in the not so honest words of Bill Clinton truly “feels your pain.”

What’s more, by the time Biden came of age, his father had lost all of his family’s wealth and was struggling to find work. Joe Biden back then indeed was a middle-class child at risk of falling into poverty.

Fixing things is not socialism

All of this makes Trump’s claims of Biden peddling “socialism” so preposterous.

Fixing things badly out of whack or executing reforms long overdue, like health care, isn’t socialism.

The new President’s agenda isn’t so much about being progressive as it is about re-balancing.

And, as it was at the time of FDR, it is clear at this point in time that the established political toolkit mechanisms and policy preferences exhibited in the United States are leaving the country in a lurch.

The active pursuit of “gridlock” which the Republicans cherish when not holding the White House may be a cynical and effective partisan approach. But a strategy to move the country ahead in the age of rising global challenges and international competition it is not. No major nation has ever gotten ahead by sticking its head into the sand.

Republicans and the laughter from Beijing

Even against the heavy Republican opposition in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. Supreme Court, Mr. Biden must try very hard to use his gift for empathy to unite at least some of those bitterly divided.

If gridlock prevails, the joyous laughter all the way from Beijing should be audible in the halls of the U.S. Congress . The CCP’s leadership must be both aghast and over-joyed to find that the United States is ardently trying to paralyze itself.

Biden, the moderate

To avoid this fate, Joe Biden must first try, in concrete terms, to develop a national strategy regarding the coronavirus.

Second, he must and can agree with Republicans on a relief package for those who have lost everything in this health crisis.

While the majority in a Republican Senate may not be willing to do what is right, some might be swayed.

It takes only a few, given the highly narrow majority Republicans are likely to hold in that chamber, to change the equation. One of Biden’s greatest gift is building consensus.

The countervailing force is that loads of Republican heavyweights will excel in being utterly uncooperative as they prepare to position themselves as their party’s heir apparent for the 2024 presidential election (Remember that in the United States right after an election is deemed to be the moment before the next election).

Infrastructure matters

President Biden must also unveil a major recovery program centered around infrastructure. True, Barack Obama tried — and, despite presenting a very reasonable program focused on creating domestic employment, he ran into a Republican buzz saw.

One can only hope that Mr. Biden will be luckier and manage to craft a reasonable compromise with enough Republicans.

Undoubtedly, the Republicans will focus on the corporate subsidies that such a program will provide. That should give Biden sufficient space to focus on the issue of job creation, especially well-paying manufacturing jobs, including for climate change measures.

Energy matters

That could include, for example, an initiative to make clean geothermal energy, the United States’ primary source of energy by 2040. The technology is largely developed, and oil and gas companies could become the subject matter experts in executing this strategy.

The benefits to the industry, but particularly its workers in key battleground states as well as the immeasurably positive impact on climate change, could be a win-win-win strategy for Biden forming completely new and creative coalitions.

Politically, no FDR moment

In contrast to FDR, given a split Congress, it will be harder for Biden to implement major reforms that will have long-lasting effects on the socio-economic conditions prevailing in the United States, including inequality and racial bias.

Moreover, FDR also had to contend with a Congress that was long wedded to oppositional defiance.

Either way, it does not do any harm to put ideas on the table even if Republicans might vote them down in the Senate. Explaining the underlying rationale and explaining it to the share of reasonable Republican voters is a key task of Mr. Biden’s for the next four years.

Since that will take time to sink in and show effects (the 2022 mid-terms are just ahead), remember as well that George W. Bush and Donald Trump have vastly increased the use of executive powers to advance their programs to bypass Congress.

Assuming an obstructionist Senate, Biden might have to further expand such powers to address some of these much-needed reforms.


Joe Biden’s challenge is bigger than FDR’s insofar as the country is more divided and Republicans are more obstructionist than ever before.

This might look like an almost overwhelming challenge. But while the odds are long, under the given circumstances one thing is for sure: The not-so-progressive Joe Biden is the right man for the job under the present political circumstances.


Given Republican recalcitrance, the governing style Biden had hoped for has moved from a “could have been” status to the “won’t happen” category.

Knowing that they have the Supreme Court in their pocket as a third super-legislative force, Republicans will see next to no need to compromise.

If the Republican Party’s new strongman Mitch McConnell has his druthers, he will make President Biden look like another coming of Jimmy Carter.

While Biden’s political platform will be less ambitious than FDR’s, it might focus on the same purposes as FDR’s New Deal -- “relief, recovery and reform.”

In addition to helping them recover over the medium term, FDR also reformed the US economy so that the middle class benefitted in the long run.

Fixing things or executing long overdue reforms -- like health care -- isn’t socialism. Biden’s agenda isn’t so much about being progressive as it is about re-balancing.