For months, there have been comparisons of Joseph R. Biden (JRB) to Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) and Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), two presidents who served at times of significant crisis in our country. After some reflection, I thought of a rather personal sports metaphor.
Thirty years ago, I was a single-digit handicap golfer. Not so much today. Time and circumstances have changed my golf game significantly. But thanks to new technology, hybrids have allowed me to play the game creditably.
FDR was elected president after the 1929 stock market crash that precipitated the Great Depression. Economic conditions throughout the country were devastating. The time and circumstances made the Federal Securities Act of 1933, the Social Security Act of 1935, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the Civilian Conservation Core, the Works Progress Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority necessary and appropriate. Some of FDR’s “New Deal” programs, such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration, still exist today.
LBJ became president upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy during a period of significant unrest. He won the office on his own in 1964 as social strife was reaching a crescendo. LBJ responded to the time and circumstances with a treasure trove of legislation he labeled, “The Great Society.”
He prevailed upon Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. He also convinced Congress to create Medicare and Medicaid to provide health care to America’s most vulnerable citizens. These programs are still in existence as are the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act and many others. These efforts continue to provide significant safety nets and pay great dividends.
The time and circumstances of today may not lend themselves to the approaches of FDR and LBJ, but a hybrid of the two may be what the country needs. President-elect Biden faces challenges that some might call two pandemics within a pandemic; COVID-19, social unrest incented by law enforcement inequities, and income inequality are significant threats to our democracy.
JRB’s “Build Back Better” platform is an agenda designed to meet today’s challenges and circumstances. As did the space race in the 1960s, the coronavirus pandemic requires science-based leadership that brings people together around a common cause. LBJ’s Medicare and Medicaid amendments to FDR’s Social Security provided much-needed health care to our most vulnerable. The times and circumstances dictate that JRB’s proposals for a public option to the Affordable Care Act and significant expansion of federally qualified Community Health Centers are what is needed.
An infrastructure program that is a hybrid of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps and LBJ’s anti-poverty programs seem perfect for our time and circumstances. A hybrid of FDR’s Tennessee Valley Authority, and LBJ’s Community Action Agency could repair our roads and bridges, expand clean air and safe drinking water, and make broadband accessible and affordable for all. High-speed internet is as important in JRB’s America as electricity was to FDR’s and safe drinking water was to LBJ’s.
FDR and LBJ made significant progress in closing gaps between rural and urban, the rich and poor, and whites and people of color, but came up lacking. My 10-20-30 initiative that JRB placed in his platform targets funding into persistent poverty communities. It was created in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that JRB oversaw. It is race and gender neutral and if broadly implemented would make significant and sustainable progress.
The promise of “liberty and justice for all” requires an extensive examination of our criminal justice system. I am hopeful that JRB would take a “lookback” to the 1986, 1988 and 1994 crime bills to determine the impact and extent of unintended consequences that need addressing. To continue my golf analogy, as we tee up the approaches of JRB’s administration, we need to keep our eyes on the ball, and our heads steady.
Although JRB is not as avid a golfer as I am, I have seen him play the game. He keeps his eyes on the ball, his follow through is good, and he is pretty adept at avoiding hazards. Teeing up his administration with some hybrids from FDR and LBJ could result in some good approaches that could have as positive of an impact on his administration as those hybrid clubs have had on my golf game.
U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., is the House majority whip.