- - Monday, January 25, 2021

The fate of President Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda will depend on whether Congress embraces his call for bold government action to deal not only with the immediate economic fallout of the pandemic during his first 100 days in office, but long running inequities in American society that will require work extending well into his term — more like 1,000 days and beyond.

“A crisis of deep human suffering is in plain sight and there’s no time to waste. We have to act, and we have to act now,” Mr. Biden said in nationally televised remarks the week prior to his inauguration.

In proposing a national minimum wage of $15, generous paid family leave, and tax credits targeted at the poor, especially Black and Latino Americans, Biden channeled some of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal spirit from nearly a century ago. In his stirring inaugural address in March 1933, with the unemployment rate reaching 25 percent, FDR proclaimed, “This nation is asking for action, and action now!” And so began the first one hundred days of a historic presidency. 

“Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself…” said Roosevelt, indicating he would mobilize the federal government in novel ways with the market economy flattened by the Great Depression.

Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office have taken on mythological importance for all presidents since, because FDR and Congress aggressively attacked the crisis with an avalanche of executive orders and legislation. Likewise, Mr. Biden has signed a slew of executive orders and will send his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill to Capitol Hill.

But some of the most important parts of Roosevelt’s New Deal came well after the first one hundred days expired. For instance, the Social Security Act and National Labor Relations Act were enacted in 1935. Many of the initial programs promulgated in 1933 utterly failed.

Given the magnitude of the problems facing the United States in 2021 — a deadly pandemic, income inequality, racial strife — it seems certain that Mr. Biden’s sweeping agenda will require more than merely one hundred days to be realized.

In Episode 3 of History As It Happens, historian Lee Edwards, a distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the Heritage Foundation, said the new president and narrowly-divided Congress will grapple with questions that date to the beginning of the American experiment.

“How much government do we want? How much government do we need?” Edwards said. “We’ve been going at this for 240 years and here we are. One of the reasons why it has become an issue now is not only the pandemic, but the impact the pandemic has had on the government. This compounds a lot of the faith that Americans have lost in their government because of the Great Recession” of 2008.

A Pew Research poll conducted in late 2020 found that only 20 percent of American adults trust the government to do the right thing always or most of the time. But significant majorities, more so among Democrats than Republicans, believe the government should play a leading role in solving problems, such as ameliorating poverty.

Does this mean Americans are ready to embrace some New Deal idealism to confront the current crisis instead of Ronald Reagan’s mantra from 1981? “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” Reagan proclaimed in his first inaugural address.

Roosevelt’s and Reagan’s competing views on the roles of government were chosen as the framing for Episode 3 because the U.S. finds itself at a historic juncture. The low-tax, deregulatory policies of the past 40 years have, according to their critics, left the country with yawning income inequality, enormous budget deficits, and a dangerously loose financial system.

On the contrary, many conservatives today would argue a regime of higher taxes, Keynesian deficit spending, robust private-sector union membership, and tighter regulations has been discredited by the ‘stagflation years’ of the 1970s.

“There was a wonderful phrase which (Reagan) and other conservatives have used, and that is ‘ordered liberty,’” Edwards said. “That idea of ordered liberty is at the root of Ronald Reagan’s philosophy and I think it is going to be at the root of what conservatives are going to be debating with liberals and progressives, led by Mr. Biden, in the years ahead.”

Edwards believes Mr. Biden could struggle to get his agenda through Congress. “The margins are so narrow in favor of the Democratic philosophy.”

The lack of bipartisanship during today’s crisis stands in contrast to the cooperation Roosevelt received from progressive Republicans and conservative Democrats in passing an ambitious program which, it should be noted, largely excluded Black Americans at the insistence of powerful Southern Senate committee chairmen.

Moreover, many Congressional Republicans today remain loyal to President Trump’s 74 million voters, many of whom may be leery of what they view as socialistic policy proposals. Thus, Mr. Biden faces an immediate test of his bipartisan bargaining skills and campaign promise to reach across the aisle and arrive at meaningful compromises to deliver Americans overdue help.

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