Joe Biden has often been compared, and compared himself, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This was happening even before he won the presidency. “I’m kind of in a position that FDR was in,” he told The New Yorker in August 2020, explaining that the unprecedented crises he would face as president would require New Deal levels of government resources and activism.
The analogy seemed apt enough in the first months after Biden’s inauguration. He signed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus, the American Rescue Plan; signed a bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, the largest since Dwight Eisenhower; and was rallying support for a multitrillion-dollar Build Back Better bill, his signature social welfare and economy-restructuring package.
FDR, however, was elected with large Democratic majorities in Congress. Biden’s legislative ambitions had to squeeze through the tiny hole of a 50-50 Senate. In December 2021, one senator from his own party, Joe Manchin, decided to plug the opening, and Build Back Better suffocated. Instead of FDR, pundits began likening Biden to Jimmy Carter.
Manchin then returned to the bargaining table in the summer of 2022 and supported the passage of the $740 billion Inflation Reduction Act for green energy and the $280 billion CHIPS Act for semiconductors. Suddenly, the Roosevelt comparisons came roaring back—and for good reason.
As Rana Foroohar and Will Norris report in their twin cover stories in this issue, Biden’s legislative wins, combined with his reviving of antitrust enforcement and related shift in trade strategy, amount to a renewed—though not fully appreciated—vision of the economy and government’s role in it. It is nothing short of an overthrow of the free market “neoliberalism” that has guided the economic policies of every president since Ronald Reagan—who himself jettisoned the Keynesian–New Deal paradigm that had dominated economic thinking since the Roosevelt administration.
But while FDR won widespread public support for his revolutionary actions during his first term, Biden so far has not. His approval ratings for handling the economy are so low that recent surveys have him trailing the likely GOP presidential nominee, the four-times-indicted Donald Trump.
That’s why I think the former president whom Biden most closely resembles is not FDR but Harry S. Truman. Indeed, the parallels between the two men are uncanny.
Biden, the muscle-car-loving, state-school-educated man from Scranton, has the same feel for and connection to the middle America of his day as did Truman, a former farmer and haberdasher from Missouri who could tell the age of a draft horse by inspecting its teeth. Like Truman, Biden loved serving in the U.S. Senate but has a chip on his shoulder about Ivy League types. Like Truman, Biden suffers the endless derisions of insiders about not being up to the job and lacking the charisma and oratorical gifts of the president he served as VP. Both men were stymied after their first midterm by do-nothing Republican House majorities (and, for Truman, a recalcitrant GOP Senate as well). Both were strong supporters of organized labor who overrode union strikes when they threatened key industries—mining and others for Truman, railroads for Biden. Both lost public support due to inflation—Biden by pandemic-caused disruptions of brittle supply chains exacerbated by monopoly rent-seeking, and Truman by Congress’s lifting World War II price controls. During his reelection campaign, Truman faced third-party challenges from Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace, just as Biden needs to worry about Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel West, and whichever candidate No Labels recruits.
The comparisons extend to foreign policy. Biden and Truman both faced new threats from Russia that they countered through alliances—Truman by founding NATO, Biden by reinvigorating and expanding it. Truman executed the Berlin airlift, saving an outpost of democracy from Moscow’s control without directly engaging with it militarily. Biden has so far done the same in Ukraine. Truman recognized Israel against the advice of many in his inner circle and party. Biden unconditionally supported the Jewish state after the brutal Hamas incursion despite dissent from some progressives.
The most striking parallel, however, is the two men’s work to build a global order. Truman is most remembered today for the doctrine that bears his name: committing U.S. power to contain communism and support democracies. This involved military actions, as in Korea, and new military alliances like NATO, but also vast economic interventions and investments that integrated the world’s democracies into a common trading system that could withstand the threat of totalitarianism while building a broad middle class. As Foroohar details, Biden is attempting something similar: He is pursuing economic agreements with U.S. allies to boost average wages in their home countries and ours. The goal is to undercut support for political illiberalism and challenge the economic predations of Russia and China.
Truman didn’t receive full recognition for his world-historic accomplishments until many years after he left the White House. Similarly, the scope and profundity of what Biden is attempting to do is currently lost on the American public. Most plugged-in Washington insiders don’t have a clue, either. The aim of the two cover stories in this issue of the Washington Monthly is to enlighten those insiders about what’s really going on so they can bring the news to the public. That, in turn, might give Biden a fighting chance to defy expectations in 2024 like Truman did in 1948.