Unfortunately, this may be true.
Like his Democrat predecessors, Biden claims that sweeping government action will transform America into a more just and prosperous nation. In fact, the domestic programs advanced by those two liberal lions – the New Deal and the Great Society – failed to deliver on their promises. Their heroic memories are the triumph of myth over reality.
Let’s stipulate that the American economy has always been so vast and influenced by so many factors that it is difficult to measure the impact of specific policies. In addition, counterfactual history is by definition speculative: We don’t know what would have happened if Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson had made very different choices. We can get close to answers, but the ground remains muddy enough that partisans can almost always argue that things would have been better or worse if specific policies had or had not been implemented. That said, the “things weren’t great but they would have been worse without me” argument – a main defense of Barack Obama’s feckless policies – is often a tacit admission of failure.
Still, we can measure FDR, whose policies aimed to end the Great Depression, and LBJ, who launched a costly war on poverty, on their own terms. And in that light, neither achieved his aims.
A growing body of scholarship shows that the New Deal Roosevelt launched in 1933 did not end the Great Depression. Yes, the economy did grow during his first term in office – how much of that was due to his policies or the rebounding business cycle is hard to say. But the first New Deal, and the second, more aggressive set of policies FDR advanced in 1935 in response to the continuing crisis and growing civil unrest, did not create a lasting recovery. The nation dipped back into recession in 1937-38 and unemployment was higher in 1939 (17.2%) than it was in 1931 (15.9%). It took a horrific world war to finally turn the tide. In 1943 the unemployment rate was 1.9%.
When Johnson described the Great Society in his 1964 State of the Union address, he said its goal was “not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” In the decades since we have spent trillions on Medicaid, food stamps and public housing. Yes, all that money – and other programs such as affirmative action – has made some difference. But the disparities in health and wealth, in crime rates and education, between wealthier Americans and the urban blacks and rural whites those programs targeted, have diminished little.
The United States is a far richer country than it was in the 1930s or 1960s. The standard of living enjoyed by all citizens has risen significantly during the last century. But one would be hard pressed to argue that government welfare programs and regulations are the reason rather than the dynamism of our capitalist system.
Note that the same people who deride the Reagan Revolution’s achievements trumpet the hard to identify economic gains of the New Deal and Great Society. This false view enables them to ignore the actual lessons of history, to demonize Ronald Reagan while pretending that FDR and LBJ set the path others, including President Biden, should follow.
Biden’s multitrillion-dollar social programs are far more radical than those of his Democrat predecessors because he is pushing for radical change at a time of relative prosperity and stability. Instead of the Great Depression that Roosevelt inherited, Biden was handed a growing economy. Unlike Johnson, who assumed office at the height of the civil rights movement, Biden’s America is not riddled with the systemic injustice of Jim Crow.
Given those crises, one can understand why the 32nd president and the 36th felt an urgent need to act. Biden has no such excuse. The current leader also has the advantage of hindsight. He can see the shortcomings of the approach embraced by his predecessors.
Insanity is commonly defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. This is what we’re getting as Biden takes up the mantle of two men he considers icons.