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Jeff Jacoby / May 13, 2021

A Democrat in the White House? Cue the FDR Analogies

Americans in 2021 aren’t asking for another New Deal.

Wishful comparisons of President Biden to Franklin Delano Roosevelt have been coming fast and furious.

In a New York Times essay, the liberal author Jonathan Alter dubbed Biden “FDR’s heir” and declared that by signing the $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus package, the president “has made a good start” at duplicating what “Roosevelt did amid the Depression.” In another column, the Times’s Jamelle Bouie hailed the stimulus bill as “FDR-sized” and said it “compares favorably” with anything FDR signed in his first 100 days. “Biden is off to an excellent start — arguably, one of the best since Roosevelt,” kvelled David Gergen, a former adviser to four presidents. Time magazine announced even before the election that Biden was “positioning himself as a modern FDR” and agreed that Roosevelt could be “Biden’s closest presidential parallel.”

Biden himself has made efforts to be seen wearing FDR’s mantle. On entering the White House, he hung a huge painting of FDR opposite his desk in the Oval Office. He invoked the 32nd president in his recent speech to Congress. He invited seven historians to the White House, reported Mike Allen in Axios, so they could talk about his “most admired predecessors,” especially Roosevelt.

Does all this induce a sense of déjà vu? It should. No sooner was Barack Obama elected in 2008, historian William Leuchtenburg wrote, than “observers at home and abroad were likening him to FDR and calling his program a 21st-century New Deal.” The New Yorker published an illustration of Obama-as-Roosevelt, complete with ear-to-ear grin and cigarette holder. A few days later, a similar image appeared on the cover of Time, which proclaimed the advent of “The New New Deal.”

When Bill Clinton was the freshly installed Democrat at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, there was similarly giddy second-coming-of-FDR speculation. “Bill Clinton Picks Up Where FDR Left Off,” wrote Carlos Fuentes for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1993. A Chicago Tribune correspondent reported from Washington that “people here think Franklin Roosevelt has come to life as Bill Clinton with another New Deal.” On the PBS program “Washington Week in Review,” one talking head earnestly exclaimed in January 1994 that the Clinton presidency was proving “Rooseveltilian… . This is Franklin Roosevelt. This is a new New Deal.”

But it wasn’t. Neither Clinton nor Obama turned out to be FDR’s political reincarnation. Biden won’t either, and for one reason above all: 2021 is not remotely comparable to 1933.

To begin with, Roosevelt was elected in a landslide, outpolling Herbert Hoover 2-to-1 in the popular vote, and carrying 42 states to Hoover’s six. Democrats won supermajorities in both houses of Congress, so that FDR became president with an unprecedented mandate to end the worst economic crisis in US history. Roosevelt took office amid a Depression so terrible that one-fourth of the workforce was unemployed, half the country’s banks had failed, industrial production had collapsed, and millions of Americans were homeless. By 1933, the value of shares on the New York Stock Exchange had plunged to less than a fifth of what it had been in 1929. The nation was frightened and desperate and wanted the new president to act swiftly and boldly.

Roosevelt obliged. He sent one radical piece of legislation after another to Capitol Hill, where they were rapidly passed by the overwhelmingly Democratic Congress — 16 major new laws within 100 days.

Nothing comparable is in the offing today.

Unlike FDR, Biden moved into the White House as things were getting better: The deadly coronavirus pandemic was receding in the United States and the economy was rebounding vigorously from an induced shutdown. Biden was not elected to radically transform American society but to oversee a “return to normalcy” and not be Donald Trump. His party’s progressive base clamors for the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress to ram sweeping, expensive, transformational measures into law by any means necessary, but it isn’t going to happen. Voters have not given Biden anything like the political authority they gave FDR. There was no Biden landslide, and Democrats control Congress by only the narrowest of margins. Indeed, Democrats lost seats in the 2020 election and are apt to lose even more next year. Biden’s approval rating is in the low 50s, respectable but modest.

In 1933, Americans wanted FDR to do something drastic and gave him the political tools to get it done. Americans in 2021 aren’t asking for another New Deal, and have made sure that the president won’t be able to enact one. FDR analogies may give Democrats a thrill, but don’t expect them to foreshadow the Biden presidency.

(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).

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