On April Fool’s Day, CNN ran an “analysis” of Joe Biden’s presidency:
Will JRB take his place alongside FDR and LBJ?
CNN explained “JRB” had just unveiled a $2 trillion infrastructure plan “to boost ordinary working Americans rather than the wealthy,” a program that together with his $1.9 trillion Covid rescue doubles “as a bid to lift millions of Americans out of poverty.”
The news is like high school. One day, one kid comes in wearing Dior sneakers and Nike X Ambush pants, and two days later, that’s all you see in the halls. The “Biden-as-FDR” stories raced around News High, with headlines like “With nods to FDR, JFK and LBJ, Biden goes big on infrastructure plan” (Yahoo!) and “Can Biden achieve an FDR-style presidency? A historian sees surprising parallels” (Washington Post). Even the New Yorker’s naysaying take, “Is Biden Really the Second Coming of F.D.R. and L.B.J.?” read at first glance like an affirmation.
That this high-flown language came on the heels of Biden’s people whispering F.D.R. comparisons in the ears of reporters for weeks, and Biden himself calling his plan “a once-in-a-generation investment in America,” seemed not to bother anyone. We live in a time when a president can be said to have “sharply cut poverty” the moment he signs a relief bill, so why not say, as CNN editorialists Stephen Collison and Caitlin Hu did, that this new bill’s passage would immediately allow Biden to “lay claim to a spot in the Democratic pantheon alongside Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson?”
This would only be natural, they said, since “Scranton Joe” has long despaired over the silver spoon inequities of Donald Trump’s trickle-down economy:
The President complained as he unveiled his plan in Pittsburgh -- the kind of gritty blue-collar city he loves -- that the top 1% saw their wealth rise by $4 trillion during the pandemic while millions of Americans lost jobs. "Just goes to show you how distorted and unfair our economy has become," Biden said. "Wasn't always this way. Well, it's time to change that."
Left unmentioned was that the same gritty, blue-collar president oversaw the TARP bailout, which resulted in a similar Trumpian windfall for the 1%. The richest saw their share of America’s wealth increase from 30% in 2010 to 39% in 2016. Median household net worth fell 34% from a peak in 2007 to the end of the Obama-Biden presidency, while banks in 2009 had the best year they would have until 2020, that “unfair” bailout year Biden complained about.
Pundits have long been working on revising that history. By last summer, the Atlantic was writing this about Biden’s management of the other bailout:
Critics on the left faulted him and Obama for not making the stimulus package bigger (though keeping it below $1 trillion was the price of winning necessary Republican votes for its passage in the Senate).
That’s just not true. Certainly, Republicans would have hammered Obama for a stimulus of any size, but Obama officials decided on those levels on their own. We’ve known this since 2012, when the New Yorker published a piece outing the fact that Larry Summers advised the incoming president to prioritize deficit reduction over stimulus. You can read the 57-page secret Summers memo here.
With a partisan divide wedded to a hyper-concentrated landscape, commercial media companies can now sell almost any narrative they want. They can disappear the past with relative ease, and the present can be pushed whichever way a handful of key decision-makers thinks will sell best with audiences.
In the case of Biden, we’ve seen in the first few months that the upscale, cosmopolitan target audiences of outlets like CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post want to believe they’re living through a “radical,” “transformative” presidency, the political antidote to the Trump years. The same crowd of West Wing power-tweeters was leading the charge against “purity” in politics about eight minutes ago.
In fact, in the 2019-2020 primary season, Bernie Sanders was regularly lambasted by the same blue-leaning press outlets for trying to re-imagine F.D.R. through programs with names like the “Green New Deal.” Proposal after proposal that had been directly inspired by F.D.R. was described as too expensive, unrealistic, or a political non-starter heading into a general election.
Now that the real version of that brand of politics has been safely eliminated, a new PR campaign is stressing that Democrats did elect F.D.R. after all. Moreover, a legend is being built that crime-bill signing, PATRIOT-Act inspiring, Iraq-war-humping Joe Biden wanted all along to be a radical progressive, but was held back by the intransigence of the evil Republicans. Is that even remotely true?
Observe, for instance, the hilarious Ezra Klein editorial that just ran in the New York Times, called “Four Ways to Look at the Radicalism of Joe Biden” (someone actually wrote that headline!):
Before Biden, Democratic presidents designed policy with one eye on attracting Republican votes, or at least mollifying Republican critics. That’s why a third of the 2009 stimulus was made up of tax cuts, why the Affordable Care Act was built atop the Romneycare framework, why President Bill Clinton’s first budget included sharp spending cuts…
Over the past decade, congressional Republicans slowly but completely disabused Democrats of these hopes. The long campaign against the ideological compromise that was the Affordable Care Act is central here…
The result is that Obama, Biden, the key political strategists who advise Biden and almost the entire Democratic congressional caucus simply stopped believing Republicans would ever vote for major Democratic bills.
Question for Ezra: did Obama also accelerate the drone program, expand the surveillance state, and abandon enforcement of white-collar crime to a degree that made John Ashcroft look like Eliot Ness, in a similar effort to reach across the aisle? Or were those Executive Branch behaviors just expressions of unrequited love?
Obama as a presidential candidate in 2008 contrasted himself with Hillary Clinton by insisting he would be the guy to stop kowtowing to special interests. On health care, he was incredibly specific: he would green-light drug re-importation from Canada and allow Medicare to negotiate bulk pharmaceutical prices, insisting also he was a “proponent” of single-payer.
Obama went so far as to do an ad blasting former Louisiana congressman Billy Tauzin, who went from helping write the ban on Medicare bargaining to going to “work for the pharmaceutical industry making two million dollars a year” at the lobbying group PhRMA.
“Imagine that,” said Obama. “That’s an example of the same old game‐playing in Washington. I don’t want to learn how to play the game better. I want to put an end to the game‐playing.”
The year after this ad ran, Obama was meeting with that same Billy Tauzin in, ironically, the Roosevelt Room of the White House (Tauzin would end up visiting a dozen times). There, they hammered out a deal: Tauzin’s group, PhRMA, would fund a $150 million ad campaign boosting Obama’s health care program, in exchange for the Obama White House agreeing to kill the reimportation idea and leave the ban on Medicare negotiation in place.
Tauzin later described the deal, saying it had been “blessed” by the White House, and emails later released showed a union official who was part of health care bill negotiations explaining how Obama’s White House planned on paying for its PR campaign: “They plan to hit up the ‘bad guys’ for most of the $.”
Obama in other words won a contentious primary against Hillary Clinton by snowing reporters like me into hyping him as the clean hands guy who’d push aside Clintonian transactional politics. Then he turned around a year later and passed his signature program with help from the worst industry actors, paying for it by killing the progressive parts of the plan.
This history — important history — is now being rewritten by people like Klein as an “ideological compromise” inspired by the Obama/Biden White House’s misguided desire to govern with Republican votes. The fact that the Affordable Care Act passed with a grand total of zero such votes is apparently irrelevant, as was Biden’s ignored and erroneous (do we only say “lie” in some cases?) insistence as a candidate last year that he found “Republican votes” for “Obamacare.”
Something like Obama’s PhRMA one-two is happening again, and predictably, it’s not getting much press. A hundred countries have formally asked the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property laws that only allow companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca to make Covid-19 vaccines. Favoring the waiver: Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and hundreds of millions of poor and mostly nonwhite folks in other countries who are nervous about the whole dying thing.
Opposing (drumroll, please): that same PhRMA lobbying group, which says such waivers would “undermine the global response to the pandemic, including ongoing effort to tackle new variants.” Meaning, industry will stop developing vaccines now, and certainly won’t develop any the next time, if you don’t let it cash in.
Without the ability to make generics, countries like Mexico have to be grateful for handouts of some of the tens of millions of excess vaccine doses we have sitting in storage. In fact, in what the New York Times called a “notable step into vaccine diplomacy,” Biden agreed to send 2.5 million doses to Mexico in return for Mexico promising to increase patrols on its southern border with Guatemala.
To recap: while waffling on patent waivers, Biden traded 2.5 million doses of vaccine to Mexico for a promise to crack down on the Central American migrants who have become a pain in this administration’s public relations tuchus. Perhaps Biden eventually will push for the patent waivers, but for now, does anyone even have to ask what the headlines describing that kind of lives-for-fewer-immigrants deal would have looked like if Trump brokered it?
This has so much been the story of Biden’s presidency, which is certainly less chaotic than Trump’s and does have some clearly different ambitions, but in many ways represents continuity with both his predecessor and his predecessor’s predecessor.
What would we have said if Trump promised to stop wall construction, then went ahead and kept building it anyway? Candidate Biden promised not to build “another foot of wall,” and although it is true that he’s frozen Defense Department funding for Trump’s project, his Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the decision left “room” for the administration to “make decisions” about “areas of the wall that need renovation and “particular projects that need to be finished.” So F.D.R. is building more wall.
Others have made plenty of hay about the discrepancies in covering unaccompanied child detainees now, versus a few years ago. Agencies from the AP to the Washington Post are using the word “challenge” instead of “crisis” or “horror.” It’s of course only a coincidence that this is the word Press Secretary Psaki started using back on March 18th (correcting the use of “crisis”).
The cries of hypocrisy about the non-use of the term “kids in cages” is, I think, overblown, because separating children from families was an intentional aim of the Trump administration — remember, Trump officials were hoping for a lot of media coverage about separated kids, with the specific aim of producing a “substantial deterrent effect.” That was substantially more deranged than any Biden policy. That doesn’t make it not ridiculous that the Washington Post called the following structures “migrant facilities”:
When pressed on the absurdity, the Post noted that it hadn’t necessarily said what was happening at the border was a good thing, even quoting activists saying it was a “huge step backward.” The Post hastened to add that the same activist said of the Carrizo Springs, Texas facility, “I consoled myself with the fact that it was considered the Cadillac of [migrant child] centers.”
Again, is it hard to imagine what the response would have been if anyone, inside or outside the Trump administration, had tried to sell us on the idea that immigrant kids were staying in the “Cadillac” of detention centers? The “Cadillac cages” and “Cadillac concentration camps” jokes would have written themselves.
The dull truth about Biden is that he’s governed, domestically, as a slightly more progressive version of the Obama administration, with a more ambitious bailout, while his foreign policy is a notch or two more hawkish — a wash, overall, though most of the stories about policy continuity from Afghanistan to Iran to Ukraine and beyond, don’t get headlines.
During the recent all-consuming furor over the Major League Baseball all-star game, for instance, news that the federal defense budget under Biden will likely remain at the same astronomical levels they reached under Trump went mostly unnoticed. A few outlets that paid attention used the common defense industry talking point that the numbers actually represented a cut, since the increase was smaller than the rate of inflation. Same with Biden’s continuation of the storied presidential tradition of punting on withdrawal of support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine territories, reported via headlines like, “Joe Biden is not planning to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Read the rest here.