Salvo 06.22.2022 7 minutes

Rendezvous with Oblivion

Don Young Lies In State At U.S. Capitol

Biden's historians fantasized about FDR, but the reality will be closer to Carter.

In March 2021, President Biden spent an afternoon with a group of academic historians. They had assembled to advise the President on how his presidency might be shaped to be considered “historic.” Press reports hinted that the President’s staff saw an opportunity to nudge their boss into adopting an ambitious domestic agenda by crafting an image of Biden consulting history as a guide.

The historians were gathered at the President’s request by Jon Meacham, the author of Biden’s favorite history, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. To many, it looked as if Meacham was to play the role of house historian, as Arthur Schlesinger did for President Kennedy. Meacham was credited with writing Biden’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention; he later characterized the speech as “poetic” on MSNBC without disclosing his authorship.

The enlisted attendees, all credentialed progressives, included Michael Beschloss and Doris Kerns Goodwin, each of whom has written on several presidencies; Joanne B. Freeman, a Yale professor and expert on Alexander Hamilton’s life; and Walter Issacson, many of whose books touch on presidential power.

The historians overlooked the fact that Biden overcame a substantial enthusiasm gap in his election through the emergency authorization of mass mail-in balloting, as well as the unique circumstance of facing an opponent with extraordinarily high negatives.

Instead, they spoke as though Biden had achieved an electoral mandate. He was, they argued, in a special position to undertake a programmatic agenda that would transform the nation’s civic and economic life. He could achieve that which President Obama had promised but failed to produce.

The advice is reported to have come in simple phrases—go really big, go really fast. The conjured image of what Biden could achieve was a fusion of the accomplishments of FDR and LBJ, only bigger, to meet the enlarged aspirations of a woke society. To Biden, who knows he has long been regarded as a second-stringer, a program to rival the New Deal or Great Society would be too much to resist.

But Biden, the only practiced politician in the room, failed to see the risk of assuming a non-existent voters’ mandate. Perhaps in a kind of nostalgic ambition, striving so hard to cement a legacy, he embraced the idea of a “Biden New Deal.” It may have been the single most disastrous moment of his presidency.

Biden’s historians convinced him he could be just like his presidential heroes. But they delivered something closer to the second coming of Jimmy Carter. The political moment allowed them to push outsized programmatic goals on a man who has always been a generic moderate Democrat.

Consider Biden’s October 2020 campaign speech in Gettysburg—words said to be his own handiwork. It described his hope to bring the country together and resolve the bitter conflicts dividing Americans. This was the real Joe Biden, who has utilized Washington’s “get along, go along” transactional formula for success throughout his career.

There was no hint of the rancor that has since characterized Biden’s increasingly divisive recent speeches, where he has painted millions of citizens who voted against him as enemies of democracy and appeared ready to use the instruments of the state against them. The Joe Biden of yesteryear would never have countenanced a Justice Department that treats parents quarreling with their school board over CRT as domestic terrorists.

Once the idea of a “Biden New Deal” had been embraced by their boss, those controlling the presidential confection were off to the races, ready to aggressively expand LBJ’s Great Society and remodel it along the unmistakably socialist tenets touted by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and “the Squad.”

By the summer of 2021, it was clear that the pretense of controlling COVID would operate as a cover for a Keynesian-socialist transformation of American society. Extraordinary sums were rushed to those who had lost their jobs as a result of COVID. This resulted in marginally productive workers leaving the labor force altogether, perhaps in anticipation of a permanent public income. The Biden team even began discussing such a universal basic income program, which would render labor force participation rates irrelevant as a measure of economic health.

Simultaneously, Biden’s formula called for spending huge sums on physical infrastructure and on “human infrastructure,” a neologism that described a slew of new social welfare programs—such as federalized daycare—that likely would become permanent. Even without the whole of the envisioned Biden New Deal, current federal spending related to newly-expanded social welfare programs is responsible for much of the inflation Americans are dealing with on a daily basis. In addition, Biden’s federal appointees began inventing for themselves new powers to regulate corporations, a move that has further discouraged innovation and slowed the economy.

But perhaps nothing is more dangerous to the economy than the President’s ideological war on fossil fuels. In a spiteful repudiation of Trump’s energy policy, Biden ordered a halt to drilling and shut down pipelines, driving up the price of oil. Appearing gleeful that higher gas prices will accelerate a transformation of the economy to solar and wind energy, the President ignores the disproportionate impact this will have on the poor. Despite the crowing from elected officials like Senator Debbie Stabenow or late-night talk show hosts like Stephen Colbert about how their electric cars have freed them from petty worries about rising gas prices, few households below the median income level will be trading in their gas-guzzling clunkers for a $70,000 Tesla anytime soon.

It’s too bad that when President Biden sought the advice of historians, he didn’t include Amity Shlaes, whose history of Roosevelt and the Great Depression, The Forgotten Man, would have provided a sobering story of how FDR’s interventions—from paying farmers to spill milk to confiscating gold—made matters worse. Indeed, Shlaes makes the case that FDR’s Keynesian-inspired spending prolonged the Depression long after England had begun to recover.

Had historian Niall Ferguson been present, he would have warned that debt at the levels of Biden’s programs risks American leadership on the world stage. Ferguson’s history, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, shows what happens when empires have foundered on debt. Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Sargent might have reminded the new President that long-term unemployment benefits result in permanent shrinkage of the labor force. English historian Paul Johnson would have told Biden that Churchill found it counterproductive to carry grudges and would never have spitefully undone effective Trump policies like closing the border.

All these writers might also have cautioned that historians, flattered by being consulted on how to shape future events, are a treacherous bunch. The point of learning history is to caution prudence, not to bolster recklessness. When history becomes a tool of fantasists, a reality check is never far away.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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