Opinion | Just How Transformational Is the Biden Presidency?

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Enthusiasm for President Biden’s ambition is rampant among progressives. In the first 100 days of his presidency, he has inspired premonitions of the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt. In his address to Congress last week, Mr. Biden himself invoked the parallel, “turning peril into possibility.”

And no wonder: After breaking through in the Democratic primaries as a centrist, Mr. Biden has surpassed his party’s expectations for the scale of his vision and moved sharply to the left in his early days in office.

It is not easy to explain Mr. Biden’s “radicalism.” For the most rapturous, a big-spending champion of a new welfare state has arisen from a cautious market-friendly centrism. The American Rescue Plan, the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan augur a “decisive break” with the era of small government. The pandemic’s exposure of American inequalities and changes in the thinking of our experts have led many to anticipate a new era in our politics.

Still, that is not the whole story. The Democrats’ newfound tolerance of deficits for the sake of relief, infrastructure and care does move beyond the austerity economics of the last several decades. But as the journalist David Dayen points out, it has not affected a budget proposal promising to “restore” discretionary nondefense spending to levels that are still less than those during the Ronald Reagan era (as a percentage of gross domestic product). Mr. Biden’s rebalancing of tax fairness for individuals takes the country back, as the president acknowledged Wednesday, to George W. Bush levels of under 40 percent for the top tax bracket, not Roosevelt levels of 94 percent at their height or even pre-Reagan levels of 70 percent.

If Mr. Biden’s first 100 days differ significantly from the New Deal, however, the fear that motivated Democrats back then is the best explanation for their early actions, especially when it came to rethinking the American social contract. In his first inaugural, Roosevelt warned against fear itself. The truth, as the New Deal historian Ira Katznelson memorably emphasized, is that anxiety drove many of the innovations of the era, from the contraction of class inequality (including high tax rates) at home to the militarized stance toward enemies like the Nazis abroad. But terror over risks to stability and wealth lay behind a redefinition of social fairness and the rise of a new kind of state.

That fear can drive reform, while also limiting and marring it, is what we need to consider once again. What Democrats are afraid of best explains what they are doing, and where they will stop — and that may be the problem.

Mr. Biden’s foreign policy staffers have been the most cleareyed about their challenges. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged that “Americans have been asking tough but fair questions about what we’re doing, how we’re leading — indeed, whether we should be leading at all.”

Opinion Debate
What should the Biden administration prioritize?

  • Edward L. Glaeser, an economist, writes that the president should use his infrastructure plan as an opportunity to “break the country out of its zoning straitjacket”
  • The Editorial Board argues the administration should return to the Iran nuclear deal, and that “at this point, the hard-line approach defies common sense.”
  • Jonathan Alter writes that Biden needs to do now what F.D.R. achieved during the depression: “restore faith that the long-distrusted federal government can deliver rapid, tangible achievements.”
  • Gail Collins, Opinion columnist, has a few questions about gun violence: “One is, what about the gun control bills? The other is, what’s with the filibuster? Is that all the Republicans know how to do?”

Brian Deese, the director of the Council of Economic Policy, is also entirely open that the prospect of alienating voters in a closely divided country keeps him up at night: “Your ability to sustain good policy is connected to your ability to sustain political support for that good policy.”

With a higher minimum wage on hold (Mr. Biden did order a $15 minimum wage for federal contractors) and the fate of Mr. Biden’s proposed increase in the corporate tax rate unknown, much of the history that the Democrats write is now up to Congress. The red meat of Mr. Biden’s proposals will look very different after the sausage grinder of the legislative process.

But both the generosity and the limits of the reformism of fear always depend on what exactly reformers find terrifying — and what they think will lead to safety. The threat of electoral loss will wane as soon as it seems less credible that Donald Trump or someone like him can capitalize on elite failures. Even as long as that fear lasts, it can as easily lead to optical or rhetorical change as it can drive structural reform. And fear conditions the kind of government investments chosen from the policy menu.

It is not just politicians angling to stay in power whose fear we need to realistically assess. Much depends, too, on the fear levels of the donors to whom politicians answer. In the 20th century, the carnage of war and masses enraged by depression — and pushing for labor rights through street action and union politics — once led the rich to redistribute to the rest of the country more willingly. But it is unclear whether our generation’s wealthy, whose donations made a big difference for Mr. Biden in the 2020 election (much as the votes of well-off suburbanites did), are genuinely terrified, or how far the president will ultimately shape policy to their demands.

If the New Deal shows that fear can motivate reform, it also reminds us that it can cause that reform to go awry. The one big change in foreign policy that Democrats are making to their pre-Trump understanding of what a “rules-based international order” requires concerns China, especially relating to trade policy. That Democrats are embracing so floridly the model of great power competition with China that Mr. Trump embraced — even perhaps a new Cold War — suggests that they know they need more than the anxiety that they will lose again or the threats to democracy that are associated with the right (and confirmed by the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol) to keep themselves and many in their audience motivated.

“When we think about infrastructure,” said Mr. Deese, “a lot of it is in contraposition to what [Biden] is seeing China doing.” As Mr. Biden himself remarked on Wednesday: “China and other countries are closing in fast.”

The New Deal truly changed America when it ended not in a welfare state but in a warfare state — and that proved a catastrophe for the kind of ambitious reform Mr. Biden says he wants. Apprehensive competition can bring distortion, excess and manipulation; it will not merely goad policymakers to change for the better or goad constituencies to support that change. Ambition can spring from rivalry, but competition, as the first Cold War with the Soviet Union showed, can also limit reform and lead to collateral damage and disastrous mistakes.

The limits of Mr. Biden’s ambitions are the limits of the reformism of fear. For all the good it can provoke, a politics driven by threats from angry voters, domestic uprisings and foreign states cannot break the American impasse. Only hope and higher ideals can.

Samuel Moyn, a Yale law professor, is the author of the forthcoming “Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War.”

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