Joe Biden is the new FDR, right? I mean, that’s what we were told over and over again—for years. Time magazine gave us the headline, “How Joe Biden is Positioning Himself as a Modern FDR.” Three months into Biden’s term, CNN chipped in with “Three Striking Similarities Between FDR and Biden.” The New Republic won the most absurdly effusive headline contest with “Forget FDR. Biden is a Major President in His Own Right.”
Turns out it was all a bad joke. If that wasn’t obvious before the fight over the debt ceiling, it should be now.
The president has multiple legal options for challenging or completely ignoring the debt limit. Instead of pursuing any of them, he’s negotiating with Republicans about ways to make America’s welfare state—always a pale and stunted thing by global standards—even more miserly.
How the “New FDR” Ended Up Haggling Over Work Requirements
The initial wave of comparisons between Joe Biden and Franklin D. Roosevelt was inspired by 2021’s “American Rescue Plan.” A much-touted bit of number-crunching by Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy found that the ARP’s expansion of the child tax credit would “cut child poverty by half.” Sounds pretty FDR-ish!
Except for the fact that the ARP was a COVID relief bill that created no permanent programs. In fact, it was strikingly similar to the temporary COVID relief bill that had been signed the year before by a president no one ever compared to FDR—Donald J. Trump. Both bills temporarily lifted millions of children (and adults) out of poverty—and pushed them right back into it when they expired.
No one in the media seemed too bothered by that detail at the time, and anyway Biden was talking about an ambitious spending bill that would permanently expand the welfare state. Progressives were excited, and it’s little wonder—it was supposed to include everything from universal pre-K to paid family and medical leave to free community college. If Biden and the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate had ever made a serious attempt at passing this package—even if they’d lost—the FDR comparisons would ring less hollow.
Instead, it was almost immediately split off into two bills—a bipartisan bill full of Chamber of Commerce-friendly infrastructure spending, and the “Build Back Better” bill with all the stuff corporate America was guaranteed to fight to the death to stop. We were told that this was a “two-track strategy” that would lead to both eventually becoming law. What actually happened, as anyone who wouldn’t be routinely tricked by the “wallet inspector” from The Simpsons would have predicted, is that the bipartisan infrastructure bill sailed through Congress and BBB was left to die a slow and pointless death.
A couple pieces of the corpse were eventually revived as part of the “Inflation Reduction Act” and progressives were left to bicker over whether the IRA was even a net positive when the spending on “climate change and energy security” was balanced against the deregulation and new drilling. But the welfare state expansions were long gone.
The closest Biden came to fulfilling his original hype since then was his half-hearted attempt at providing some student debt relief. That’s a good idea as far as it goes, and I’ve defended it many times, although I’d also point out that the limits of Biden’s political imagination are telling. At a time when massive numbers of Americans struggle with medical debt and credit card debt, this is a form of debt relief that only would have helped a narrow base of college-educated voters.
And now, when it comes to the people who most badly need assistance, Biden is negotiating with Republicans about exactly which social spending programs should come with Dickensian work requirements. (Are you a single mother who needs Medicaid to pay for your child’s medical bills? Or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families to help you make rent? We’ll talk once you’ve picked up a shift at McDonald’s. Those burgers don’t flip themselves. Oh, and the new layers of bureaucracy we’re adding to the assistance will for sure lead to errors and paperwork delays, sorry.)
Biden’s defenders might try to tell you that he wants to be a new FDR or LBJ—expanding the welfare state instead of signing onto these miserly contractions—but he has no choice. If Republicans don’t agree to raise the debt ceiling, America will go into default and the economic consequences would be catastrophic.
The problem with this alibi is that negotiating with Republicans isn’t even close to being Biden’s only option for avoiding a default.
Biden Ignores the Options
The 14th Amendment seems to forbid default—it says that “