Opinion | Just How Transformational Is the Biden Presidency?

By Samuel Moyn

Mr. Moyn teaches constitutional law, international law and global history, and has written extensively on intellectual history in the 20th century and the history of human rights.

Enthusiasm for President Biden’s ambition is rampant among progressives. In the first 100 days of his presidency, he has inspired premonitions of the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt. In his address to Congress last week, Mr. Biden himself invoked the parallel, “turning peril into possibility.”

And no wonder: After breaking through in the Democratic primaries as a centrist, Mr. Biden has surpassed his party’s expectations for the scale of his vision and moved sharply to the left in his early days in office.

It is not easy to explain Mr. Biden’s “radicalism.” For the most rapturous, a big-spending champion of a new welfare state has arisen from a cautious market-friendly centrism. The American Rescue Plan, the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan augur a “decisive break” with the era of small government. The pandemic’s exposure of American inequalities and changes in the thinking of our experts have led many to anticipate a new era in our politics.

Still, that is not the whole story. The Democrats’ newfound tolerance of deficits for the sake of relief, infrastructure and care does move beyond the austerity economics of the last several decades. But as the journalist David Dayen points out, it has not affected a budget proposal promising to “restore” discretionary nondefense spending to levels that are still less than those during the Ronald Reagan era (as a percentage of gross domestic product). Mr. Biden’s rebalancing of tax fairness for individuals takes the country back, as the president acknowledged Wednesday, to George W. Bush levels of under 40 percent for the top tax bracket, not Roosevelt levels of 94 percent at their height or even pre-Reagan levels of 70 percent.

If Mr. Biden’s first 100 days differ significantly from the New Deal, however, the fear that motivated Democrats back then is the best explanation for their early actions, especially when it came to rethinking the American social contract. In his first inaugural, Roosevelt warned against fear itself. The truth, as the New Deal historian Ira Katznelson memorably emphasized, is that anxiety drove many of the innovations of the era, from the contraction of class inequality (including high tax rates) at home to the militarized stance toward enemies like the Nazis abroad. But terror over risks to stability and wealth lay behind a redefinition of social fairness and the rise of a new kind of state.

That fear can drive reform, while also limiting and marring it, is what we need to consider once again. What Democrats are afraid of best explains what they are doing, and where they will stop — and that may be the problem.

Mr. Biden’s foreign policy staffers have been the most cleareyed about their challenges. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged that “Americans have been asking tough but fair questions about what we’re doing, how we’re leading — indeed, whether we should be leading at all.”

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