Both came to office when democracy was at grave risk (many Americans wanted a dictator in 1933), and saw themselves as called to bolster it. As canny politicians with good relationships on Capitol Hill, both learned to surround themselves with smarter people dedicated to making them look good. Up close, both proved hard to dislike. Meeting Mr. Roosevelt was like, as Winston Churchill said, “opening your first bottle of champagne”; meeting Mr. Biden is like one’s first encounter with a tail-wagging therapy dog.
Mr. Roosevelt essentially invented intimacy in mass communications. When he described those listening on the radio as “my friends” and adopted a conversational (as opposed to the usual stentorian) tone, he did for public speaking what Bing Crosby and other crooners did for singing. He recalled that when he was writing his first Fireside Chat, he looked out the window of the White House and saw the inaugural scaffolding being taken down. “I decided I’d try to make a speech that this workman could understand,” he told an aide. He later said he pictured a Hudson River Valley workplace where one man was painting a ceiling, another fixing a car and a third worked at cash register.
Mr. Biden is no great communicator, but his national bedside manner resembles that of “Old Doc Roosevelt.” In his first prime-time address on March 11, he leaned forward as if comforting a patient, shattering any ice of indifference.
Toward the end, Mr. Biden said, “If we all do our part, this country will be vaccinated soon.” This recalled Mr. Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration, which asked storekeepers to hang a decal of a blue eagle in their windows to signify that they were embracing government price and labor codes (the equivalent of helping vaccinate people). Under the decal was the legend: “We do our part.”
To do his own part — enacting more legislation — Mr. Biden has hinted that he will work with Democrats to amend Senate rules to return to the “talking filibuster” of Roosevelt’s day that actually required obstructionist senators to stay on the floor. (This would mean convincing Joe Manchin, who represents West Virginia in the Senate, that such a reform would not “weaken” the filibuster.)
More filibuster reform will almost certainly be necessary for full Rooseveltian success. With the reconciliation process not available for most legislation, Democrats may need another carve-out like those granted in the last decade for executive branch appointments, federal judges and Supreme Court nominees, all of which now require only 51 votes. The next exception — call it “the democracy option”— would be any bills that expand the right to vote, including H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
Even if the president convinced all the Democrats (a big “if”), the gambit could backfire. With big Democratic victories in 1934, Mr. Roosevelt defied the normal physics of midterm elections, where the party controlling the White House almost always loses seats in Congress. The president’s party didn’t gain seats in both the House and the Senate again until George W. Bush used anxiety over 9/11 to help Republicans advance in the 2002 midterms. If the electorate hews to the historical norm, that would give Republicans control after the 2022 midterms and bring big headaches for Democrats.
Whatever the future holds, Mr. Biden and Mr. Roosevelt are now fused in history by the size and breadth of their progressive ambitions. Jimmy Carter took office when liberalism was fatigued; Bill Clinton said “the era of Big Government is over”; Barack Obama was forced to conform to the mantra of deficit hawks. Mr. Biden was lucky enough to have been elected when what the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called “the cycles of American history” are spinning left. He is the first president since Lyndon Johnson who can rightly be called F.D.R.’s heir. Soon we’ll know if he squanders that legacy — or builds on it.
Jonathan Alter is a journalist and the author of “The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope,” and, most recently, “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.”
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