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Michael Hiltzik: Is Biden the next FDR? That depends on what you think about the New Deal

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

President Biden's chief of staff, Ron Klain, left nothing to the imagination on Feb. 9 when he tweeted a line from Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaugural address: "Action, and action now."

Klain repeated the allusion in another tweet a week later, and even more recently posted side-by-side photos of the Biden and Roosevelt cabinets. All this has positioned the chief of staff as the flag-carrier for an emerging political construct aiming to associate Biden's policies with the New Deal.

Comparisons between Biden and Roosevelt are proliferating in political commentary.

Historian Eric Rauchway delivered perhaps the most positive assessment in a useful interview with Greg Sargent of the Washington Post; historian Michael Lind delivered the weirdest attempt to exploit today's political landscape to knock down FDR.

As the end of the first hundred days of the Biden administration approaches, analyses weighing his nascent record against the preternaturally active hundred days that opened the Roosevelt era will become even more common.

There are advantages and dangers in drawing these parallels. Advantages for Biden, because the New Deal remains the repository of cherished Democratic Party values and progressive achievement even today, eight decades after FDR's inauguration. Dangers, because the New Deal doesn't entirely resemble the image passed down to us by history.

 

As I discovered in writing my 2011 book "The New Deal: A Modern History," there is much about FDR that will surprise you, and not always pleasantly. The legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the expectations for President Biden, can be built up but also damaged by the comparison.

That's not to say that as the first hundred days come to a close Biden hasn't honored what's seen as the tradition of inclusiveness and community established by FDR.

The Biden and FDR presidencies certainly resemble each other superficially. Both men took office as experienced politicians — Biden after a long Senate career and service as vice president; Roosevelt as governor of New York. Both entered the White House shadowed by doubts about their suitability for the presidency and about their intellectual capabilities.

Biden and FDR both followed presidents who had utterly failed in a crisis, bequeathing the mess to their successors. Both launched their administrations by drawing sharp distinctions with their predecessors' approach to governing.

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