First of all, the stock market crash precipitated much of what followed under Hoover. It crashed because so many had bought their stock on margin meaning they had to borrow to buy them. That can’t happen now. The SEC helps make sure of it, plus other regulations. Second, literally thousands of banks went under making what had been a panic into a depression. ¼ of all family savings had been wiped out. The FDIC changed that for good. Third, the federal government had never been involved in housing, but it still is. The Federal Housing Administration is THE largest home insurer in the world. Third, the Smoot-Hawley tariff was designed to protect American industries and jobs resulted in retaliations and international trade was seriously harmed and jobs with it.
Fourth, there wasn’t any unemployment insurance, a 40 hr work week with 1 ½ pay for overtime, safety standards, social security, workman’s compensation, and a federal labor relations board. Fifth, so many farms went under particularly due to the Dust Bowl that the New Deal created the Farm Credit Bureau which is the largest farm lender in the U.S. Sixth, there was no social security and the New Deal created it. Unemployment was so catastrophic that F.D.R. did what Hoover would not do and that was to put millions to work with the PWA, WPA and the CCC. Those agencies did what they were supposed to do and thus were all put to bed in WWII. And, finally, the T.V.A. which is still with us—the one lasting socialist institution created as the federal government owns and operates the dams and sells electricity.
Whatever Biden may be able to do, he can’t possibly be as consequential as the New Deal. That fundamentally changed the relationship between the public and the federal government.
Well, what about LBJ? Not a better comparison since he did not inherit an economy in turmoil. Quite the opposite as he inherited an incredibly prosperous economy. He used JFK’s murder as a rationale for pushing for lasting civil rights legislation in the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965, and 1968. And, he went far beyond that because he won one of the most resounding electoral victories in our history. He made multiple lasting reforms in our society with Medicare and Medicaid, Headstart, and many others. He introduced 87 bills to Congress and 84 of them passed or 96%–a record never likely to be equaled. The trade off was that his legislative agenda spawned a counter revolution among conservatives which led to growing partisanship that has led to a pretty toxic political environment. It also led Southern white Democrats to desert the Democratic party to become Republicans which led to Nixon’s successful Southern Strategy and painted the GOP into a likely demographic mess.
And, of course, there’s Vietnam. Our grandchildren will still be paying for its consequences.
So, I don’t think there’s enough of a comparison here either for Biden to latch onto. If he wins, he inherits a very different set of circumstances than did either F.D.R. or L.B.J. And, even if he wins, his supporters agree on one main goal—to retire Trump. If they succeed, I don’t think his supporters will be able to coalesce long enough to get anything like the legislative records of F.D.R. or L.B.J. passed.
What will Biden be faced with? First of all, he has to deal with a seriously dysfunctional political party system which has managed to secure very little public trust. How can he rebuild that trust? Good question. He has the temperament and experience to make a good effort.
But, from the get go, he will face considerable opposition from Trump’s base. Many look at Biden and Harris and can only see what they term as “baby killers”. I don’t think Biden can cure that. That base will believe Trump’s accusations of a fraudulent outcome. Many more believe that Biden’s win will bring the unwanted Progressives to power. There have already been a plethora of conspiracy theories about Biden and/or Harris. I expect that to get worse. However, as I suggested above, his own coalition will likely fray. Those who fear the progressives taking over have little to fear. They are a minority within the Democratic party which is an unwieldly coalition.
Second, the pandemic and its consequences have exposed multiple serious weaknesses in our system. Inequalities between the bottom and the top are imbedded and hard to resolve. Unemployment insurance and paid sick leave have been woefully inadequate. Many of the former jobs will be gone for good. Their employers have not survived. Congress passed palliative temporary care, but not lasting fixes.
Many, many more are without health insurance and Trump is in court to dismantle the ACA with no plan to replace it. How to improve on the ACA in a manner that can gain enough support to get through Congress is a hard question. Other democracies have done much better in doing the needed testing and care. They have universal health care and we don’t. We are still a long way from having control over Covid without a useful vaccine. Partisan conflicts over opening schools, wearing masks, and other issues have divided us; and the President has aided in enhancing those divisions.
The rise of telework; the demise of retail; the uncertainties of the gig economy; more automated manufacturing; and even the role of restaurants, theaters, tourism, and theme parks in this new environment will take time to sort out. The economy will NOT go back to where is was before Covid hit.
The third challenge is international. In previous crises, the U.S. took the lead in dealing with them. That has not happened. America First has meant trying to be THE hegemon with little international support and trust from its allies. The world IS multipolar and the U.S. has not adjusted to this reality. It has tried to muscle China into an agreement without international support. How to contain China’s worst tendencies without alienating the regime is a hard road to go without that support. How to work with China where we can and contain them is a tough challenge.
What a tough agenda for Biden if he wins. If Trump wins, we can expect even more of the same of what he’s done so far. And, our structural weaknesses will likely not be addressed.