In 2017, C-SPAN’s survey of historians matched the prevailing consensus: America’s three greatest presidents were Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt.
Our first president, Washington, is sui generis. He created the job, and knew his every word and deed could set a precedent. His reputation brought credibility to the unproven federal Constitution, and his presence in the highest office held the country together at a moment of high rancor.
Lincoln and Roosevelt helped America surmount existential crises which consigned their predecessors, James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover, to history’s bottom rung. Lincoln’s strategic sense, political savvy, and moral vision made possible the defeat of the Confederate rebellion, the abolition of slavery, and the reunification of the country. Before mobilizing the nation for victory in World War II, FDR helped lift it from the depths of the Depression, and—especially through the creation of Social Security—transformed the relationship between citizens and the government.
It is far too early, of course, to know how history will judge the presidency of Joe Biden, still in its first hundred days. Surprise ever waits in the ambush of time, and misjudgments can overtake accomplishment—as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon demonstrated in successive presidencies. But we can begin to estimate the range of possibilities, starting with a truism about circumstance and character: The great presidents have been those who served at times of crisis and rose to meet the challenge, while the worst presidents have failed to understand or act wisely when crisis came.
Biden’s crisis is the combustible convergence of COVID-19 with grave racial fissures; accelerating economic inequality; accelerating climate change; an embittered polity; a sclerotic political system scarred by scorched-earth Republican opposition—and a sociopathic predecessor whose nihilism marks him as America’s most destructive president.
Like FDR, Biden arrived at the knife’s edge between stasis and renewal. Like FDR, Biden is a canny politician with an intuition for the public mood and a reassuring persona which, in Biden’s case, ameliorates the collective exhaustion engendered by Donald Trump’s suffocating omnipresence—and generates approval ratings Trump never matched.
Like FDR, Biden has assembled a skilled and experienced team suited to his ambitions. Like FDR, he means to restore public faith in government as an instrument of the common good—and in our collective future.
Roosevelt succeeded. Whether Biden will depends, in great measure, on whether our deepening political dysfunction still allows for epochal achievement.
That Biden believes it can truly matters. For our recent history is replete with failure to achieve proactive—or even prudent—governance.
Republicans denounce Biden’s supposedly elastic definition of infrastructure. But even confined to the physical plumbing of a first-world country, America is foundering.
The American Society of Civil Engineers, in its quadrennial report released last month, rated our infrastructure at C-. The group calculates that, at current rates of investment, American infrastructure will be underfunded by $2.6 trillion across this decade—resulting in $10 trillion in lost GDP by 2039.
Small wonder. As the report notes, 46,000 of our nation’s bridges, carrying 178 million trips every day, are structurally deficient. As our water-supply system ages, a water main breaks, on average, every two minutes. More than 2,000 of the nation’s wastewater treatment plants have reached or exceeded their design capacities, and aging systems increase the risk of sewage overflows that threaten public health and safety. Our congested highways cost us $166 billion annually. U.S. airports lack the terminals necessary to handle rising numbers of passengers, contributing to millions of passenger-hours wasted by delays each year. Overall, the World Economic Forum ranks the United States thirteenth in global infrastructure.
This matches our eroding public finances—undermined by the blinkered theology which held that tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy necessarily spawn economic growth and, therefore, more revenues. Wrong. Hence Trump’s paradigmatic tax cuts, which bred minimal economic growth while precipitously ballooning our deficits.
Such policies sap the government, widen income inequality, and disserve the long-term interests of their intended beneficiaries in maintaining broad prosperity, a healthy infrastructure, and stable governance. In fundamental respects, Biden is simply addressing the consequences of our sustained societal fecklessness.
But Biden’s program transcends filling the potholes of systemic neglect. He means to build the physical infrastructure of the future while fortifying human infrastructure too long slighted.
His plan modernizes our transportation systems and energy grids; expands broadband connectivity; and invests in transitioning America to a carbon-neutral economy—combating climate change while creating new jobs. It aims to build, rehabilitate, and retrofit more than 2 million homes. It finances R&D in areas like semiconductor manufacturing and research. It envisions a network of charging stations to sustain electric vehicles.
Further, Biden addresses those bypassed by our increasingly inequitable economy. His program improves care and housing for the elderly, and aids those who help them. It raises funding for pre-K education; struggling public schools; Pell grants; and community colleges. It extends the monthly child allowance for qualifying families, and expands Medicaid to provide health services for the disadvantaged.
Beyond peradventure, Biden advocates the most ambitious social and economic blueprint since LBJ’s Great Society. Republican legislators decry its scale—and cost. But such vision is imperative, Biden’s team insists, for America to compete in a globally interconnected century where its dynamism has stalled.
As senior administrative official Brian Deese notes to Ezra Klein, by prioritizing infrastructure and investing in strategic research and development, our leading competitor—China—is bidding to make this century its own. In parallel, America’s myopic governance has created widespread doubt about its capacity to maintain a functioning democracy which can adapt its economy, revitalize its infrastructure, lead on climate change, surmount global competition, or even assure its own social stability.
Further, Biden believes that lifting those stranded by our class divide creates more economic growth—and a healthier and less-polarized society. As Eric Levitz observes, “America’s economy over the past four decades has been far crueler and more unequal than either superrich capitalists or affluent suburbanites need it to be.”
Such conditions, we are learning, impose a cost all their own. Hence FDR’s assessment quoted by Jonathan Alter: “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”
To finance his proposal, Biden would partially repeal Trump’s tax cuts by raising taxes on income over $400,000, moving the corporate tax rate from 21 to 28 percent, and reforming provisions that Democrats believe encourage corporations to offshore jobs and profits. Collectively, experts believe, this would pay for Biden’s program. Moreover, Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics estimates that the plan would substantially increase GDP and decrease unemployment by creating millions of new jobs.
This brings us to an essential measure of presidential greatness—the ability to navigate Congress. Here the C-SPAN survey placed Washington, Lincoln, and FDR behind only Lyndon Johnson, who, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, and his Great Society programs, squandered his bid for greatness in the tragic maelstrom of Vietnam.
But Washington did not have to contend with mature political parties, and Lincoln, Roosevelt and Johnson enjoyed substantial majorities in Congress. Biden faces a razor’s-edge House, a 50-50 Senate, and an entrenched Republican opposition. And recent history suggests that Biden has a year to enact his legislative priorities before congressional attention is consumed by the midterm elections.
His own party’s progressives and moderates have disparate concerns. Progressives want an infrastructure program of undiluted boldness; Democrats from red or purple constituencies desire bipartisan agreement and, in some cases, voice reservations about aspects of Biden’s tax proposals. As for the GOP, it denounces Biden’s view of infrastructure, and adamantly opposes increased taxes as inimical to prosperity and growth.
This labyrinthine legislative environment requires presidential craftsmanship and patience well beyond anything LBJ needed to enact the Great Society. Despite the GOP’s stated opposition, Biden and his team are making a concerted effort to reach out to Republicans, expressly suggesting that the broad outlines of his program are negotiable.
Biden is a skilled legislator, steeped in productive compromise—and, therefore, a realist. No doubt his bipartisan outreach is genuine. But Biden cannot negotiate indefinitely, and he absorbed the teachings of Obama’s first year: The GOP, bent on placating its base and winning the midterms, proved relentlessly oppositional. Biden can be expected to adopt the strategy most likely to yield legislative accomplishment.
Accordingly, he has redefined bipartisanship as gaining the support of significant numbers of Republican governors, mayors, and voters—all of whom stand to benefit from his proposal.
And by testing the willingness of congressional Republicans to engage in legitimate compromise, Biden will optimize the ultimate prospects of collaboration among Democrats on legislation which satisfies his essential goals.
A unified caucus is the sine qua non of legislative success—and the gateway to a legacy defined by Biden’s distinctive qualities of leadership. Should Republicans remain obdurate, Biden can deploy a potent weapon: budget reconciliation.
The reconciliation process allows certain types of legislation to pass with a bare Senate majority—in this case, all 50 Democrats plus a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Harris. Last month Democrats used it to enact the landmark pandemic relief legislation over unanimous Republican opposition, and a recent ruling from the Senate parliamentarian allows the majority to invoke reconciliation more than twice in a year. This means that, in the absence of bipartisanship, Biden can thwart a Republican filibuster and pass an infrastructure bill as expansive as his caucus allows.
Republicans would no doubt protest. But they have repeatedly used reconciliation themselves—and for aims with far less public support, including passing Trump’s tax cuts and assailing Obamacare. In the absence of congressional bipartisanship, Biden will accept a party-line vote. For he long ago learned the ultimate lesson of legislative achievement: whatever facilitates the good you seek is best.
Biden and his party might yet find a pathway through the inevitable GOP filibuster to pass landmark election and voting rights legislation which protects democracy from gerrymandering and voter suppression—thereby lessening the grip of minority rule on the Senate. That would surely seal Biden’s domestic legacy.
But such a reckoning must wait. Biden achieved the presidency late in life, and he well understands that his time to change America for the better is fleeting. He has set his course, and passed pandemic relief with remarkable celerity. Should he finish by renewing America’s economy and infrastructure, thereby reanimating confidence in government as a positive force in our collective lives, he will have transformed our governing paradigm—and, quite likely, stand as the only leader who could.
That last was surely true of Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt. By doing their utmost amid contemporary contention, they withstood the unsparing verdict of time, and achieved greatness in the perspective of history’s rearview mirror. And so, in the indeterminate reflections of historians yet to come, may Biden.