It is the oldest argument in American political history. Indeed, its roots go back to the American foundation. If you line up the most prominent founders, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall and George Washington stand on one side of the divide. Sam Adams, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and George Mason on the other. The lingering question is surprisingly simple: is the national government “us” or “them”? Washington and its cohort believed that only collective power could embody and act in the public interest; Jefferson and company viewed the central government as an intrusive evil.
We need a historical perspective on the cyclical pattern of what you might call the American Dialogue to understand why Joe Biden’s presidency has all the hallmarks of an inflection point. With the first 100 days of his presidency coming to an end this week, there is reason to believe that we may be on the cusp of a political shift from “them” to “us”. The epic failure of the Trump presidency to respond to the COVID crisis has created an open political path for Biden and his team, and so far he has run further and faster than anyone expected.
The “us” side of dialogue tends to dominate in times of acute crisis. There is a scientific consensus that the three greatest American presidents are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. All three inherited a national crisis – respectively, the American Revolution, the Civil War and the Great Depression – that required a collective response. All three have taken up the leadership challenge. And history has judged their responses favorably.
Using a “first 100 days” metric, Biden practically announced that his model was FDR. And like Roosevelt, Biden has the advantage of following blatant failure. Trump is his version of Herbert Hoover, who played violin as the Great Depression worsened. Plus, like FDR, most political experts didn’t think Biden was up to the task. And again, like FDR, Biden has confused his critics by getting fat.
Biden’s nationalized immunization program has exceeded its targets. The size and breadth of its economic stimulus package eclipses Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act. His impending infrastructure proposal would help create 19 million jobs over the next decade, and his American family plan would reweave the FDR safety net in place. Polls indicate that these federal initiatives are popular, even though Biden’s critiques, echoing those of FDR, seek to demonize his agenda as socialism.
Biden’s main target is Ronald Reagan’s legacy. In all of the popular polls assessing recent presidents, Reagan appears at or near the top of the list. His main achievement was to overturn the political narrative of Roosevelt’s New Deal, thereby making Washington “them” a national version of the Evil Empire. One of his favorite jabs described the typical American citizen terrified when a government official appears on his doorstep saying, “Hello, I’m from Washington and I’m here to help.”
Reagan redefined the Lincoln Republican Party, building on Richard Nixon’s so-called Southern Strategy, to make it the anti-government party. Now it provides political shelter for a diverse set of interest groups who share grievances with federal power: evangelicals opposed to the sanctioned abortion right in Roe vs. Wade; gun advocates who believe the 2nd Amendment provides unlimited rights to own and carry guns; white supremacists who view Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream as a nightmare; and, most influential, the very rich who pledged to cut taxes for the rich and limit federal regulation of corporations.
Biden again tries to turn the tale upside down. Suppose the government official knocking on your door is a National Guard volunteer offering to vaccinate your family against COVID-19? Or a postman in the Postal Service delivering a check for $ 4,000 from the Treasury Department? Or a Department of Transportation labor contractor offering high-paying work to rebuild the country’s roads and bridges? Your grandfather could have told you about this kind of “us” experience because the Civilian Conservation Corps hired him and saved the family from poverty. But your father was too young to remember.
Historians will remind us that FDR enjoyed a major political advantage, a huge Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. Biden not only has razor-thin majorities, but must negotiate the labyrinthine parliamentary blockades that have made the Senate the last resting place of most Democratic legislation for more than a generation.
Biden may be able to persuade enough senators to change the main obstacle: filibuster. For example, he and his allies could push for a rule change that leaves it untouched – senators can forget the legislation if they want to try – as long as the final vote demands it, not a 60-vote “fence”, but simply a simple majority. (Arguably, the fence is unconstitutional.) In the absence of this reform, the entire Biden agenda and the transition to “us” government could very well fall victim to the will of a Republican minority.
The jury is still out. In times of crisis of the past, the “us” has generally prevailed. Biden can also rejoice in having three iconic faces on Mount Rushmore with him on the “us” side: Washington, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Don’t feel sorry for the ‘them’ side. They have Thomas Jefferson.
We should know the answer halfway through.
The latest book by historian Joseph J. Ellis is “American Dialogue: The Founders and Us”.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.