“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes,” Mark Twain (supposedly) said. If so, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. could be a couplet. With a few breaks and the skillful execution of what seems to be a smart legislative strategy, President Biden is poised to match F.D.R.’s stunning debut in office.
That doesn’t require Mr. Biden to transform the country before May 1, the end of his first 100 days, the handy if arbitrary marker that Mr. Roosevelt (to the irritation of his successors) laid down in 1933. But for America to “own the future,” as the president promised last month, he needs to do amid the pandemic what Mr. Roosevelt did amid the Depression: restore faith that the long-distrusted federal government can deliver rapid, tangible achievements.
With one of the biggest and fastest vaccination campaigns in the world and the signing of a $1.9 trillion dollar Covid relief package, the president has made a good start at that. His larger aim is to change the country by changing the terms of the debate.
Just as Mr. Roosevelt understood that the laissez-faire philosophy of the 1920s wasn’t working anymore to build the nation, Mr. Biden sees that Reagan-era market capitalism cannot alone rebuild it.
The New Deal was just that — a “deal,” a new social contract between the government and the people, with a new definition of what the government owes us when we’re in trouble.
Before Mr. Roosevelt, it was largely up to local communities and the private sector to relieve suffering and expand employment. Mr. Roosevelt shifted the onus of responsibility and didn’t worry about overshooting the target. Like Mr. Biden today, he argued that spending too little is riskier than spending too much. “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity,” F.D.R. said in explaining the philosophical shift, “than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”