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Forget FDR and LBJ; meet JRB, Biden is the progressive president of our times | COMMENTARY

March 17, 2021 (Bill Bramhall, Tribune Content Agency)
March 17, 2021 (Bill Bramhall, Tribune Content Agency)

Various columnists and pundits have observed that President Joe Biden has launched his presidency with a more progressive, more confident, more forceful persona than expected.

Middle-class Joe, though definitely the Empathizer in Chief, is not leading like the everyman. He walks and talks now, admittedly at a slower pace than in his younger days, but more like a statesman. His addresses about the pandemic crisis have been solemn, realistic and inspiring. His commitment to his $1.9 trillion stimulus package was undeniable.

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President Biden has aligned himself with FDR and the New Deal, and others have aligned him with LBJ and the Great Society. Far from being the transition president he auditioned for in the primaries, Mr. Biden is emerging as a bold progressive in the tradition of both FDR and LBJ.

Is Joe becoming JRB: Joseph Robinette Biden?

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We don’t refer to all of our presidents in this way — not Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, nor Dwight Eisenhower. Just FDR, LBJ, and JFK. Teddy Roosevelt might have been given the three initial treatment, if only he’d had a middle name; instead, he was TR.

If JRB is to emerge, it will be critical not to push the analogy with FDR or LBJ too far. FDR and LBJ led progressive revolutions based on the idea of government intervention into the private sector. These revolutions moved us away from a broadly laissez-faire economy (though the Progressives had already started this process) to a mixed-economy that protected the poor, the working class, the middle class and especially women and African Americans.

The New Deal focused on job creation, worker rights, retirement security and regulation of Wall Street. The Great Society expanded the role of government to protect civil rights, particularly voting rights; fought the war on poverty; created Medicare and Medicaid; and created equal opportunity in our schools and universities.

The Biden agenda — which involves some direct transfer payments to the poor, the working class and the middle class via the $1.9 trillion stimulus package — must do more than redistribute wealth and income. Reviving our democratic institutions is the talk of the day, but doing this is not going to be as easy, especially if the filibuster is still in place.

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A new stage of American progressivism must, like the Clinton compromise of the 1990s, build in some centrist elements in order to win over enough Republicans and independents to sustain the Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate.

How specifically might Mr. Biden update his strategy in service of his new agenda? This other dimension might be a focus on reinventing the federal government so that the different parts of the government work together to solve complex problems that cannot be solved by one agency alone. These problems fall into categories including climate change, the criminal justice system, infrastructure, family policies concerning paid leave and child care, systemic racism and the pandemic crisis itself. The New Deal and Great Society are old Buick models that don’t apply today.

The key to building a model of government suitable to the time is to “leverage” resources to make the government work better internally and externally. Government does not need to be made leaner, as it did in the Clinton-Gore days; it needs to be made more creative.

The basic idea of leverage involves causing an outsized output based on a modest input via the use of a fulcrum, at least according to the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes. Leveraging in all of its dimensions today — resource leveraging, financial leveraging and bargaining leveraging — is the dominant tool used by companies, politicians, nonprofits and individuals in post-Cold War, post-nuclear family Information Age America to bring about change.

Resource leveraging, in particular, especially via the use of the internet and social media, has emerged as a massive force throughout the world, as traditional lines of authority have dissolved and agents of change must use creative strategies to achieve their ends.

The most direct form of government leveraging is government investment in a project that stimulates and needs private investment. But this is only the beginning.

FDR and LBJ did what they had to do in their time to dislodge the federal government and the majority of the country from a mentality that favored the power of the private sector over the federal government. If Joe Biden is to become JRB, he must revive democracy in America not solely with laws that constrain the private sector or with a massive legislative agenda, but with a federal government that itself is restructured so that it creatively leverages resources to solve complex cross-departmental problems.

Dave Anderson has taught political philosophy at five universities and is the editor of “Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework” (Springer, 2014). He can be reached at dmamaryland@gmail.com.

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