- - Monday, May 24, 2021

As President Biden pushes the most ambitious legislative agenda since the Great Society — the price tag of Mr. Biden’s proposals surpasses $6 trillion — his “go big” approach is surprising those who viewed him as a centrist Democrat who would resist the leftward pull of the party’s progressive wing.

But maybe centrist or progressive was never the right label for a man who was first elected to the Senate in 1972. Mr. Biden has always been a liberal — a liberal in the New Deal mode, said Princeton historian Sean Wilentz in the latest episode of the History As It Happens podcast.

“Biden is certainly a product of the age of Reagan, but he came of age politically in the 1950s and 1960s. At that point, New Deal liberalism was still riding high. What you are seeing now is the emergence of a Joe Biden who has really always been there. It’s just that he has not been in a historical place where he was called upon to act that out,” said Mr. Wilentz, the author of “The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008.”

Biden has an opportunity to enact a sweeping agenda because the context of governing has changed since the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, in Mr. Wilentz’s view.

“Now is the time when you can think big. You can do it, but you need to do it,” the Princeton scholar said.

A timely comparison to the New Deal era can be found in President Franklin Roosevelt’s second inaugural address, in which he warned Americans to not let a partial recovery from the Great Depression lull them into complacency about the country’s structural economic problems.

“To hold to progress today, however, is more difficult. Dulled conscience, irresponsibility and ruthless self-interest already reappear. Such symptoms of prosperity may become portents of disaster! Prosperity already tests the persistence of our progressive purpose,” Mr. Roosevelt said on Jan. 20, 1937.

In other words, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Likewise, Mr. Biden is trying to convince Congress to approve his massive spending plans even though the U.S. economy is coming back to life as the coronavirus pandemic subsides.

“What [Biden] is really trying to do is undo Reaganism,” Mr. Wilentz said. “That is to say, the thought that the government is part of the problem and not the solution.”

Where Democrats must tread carefully is culture, especially in areas such as public education. Ferocious culture wars are being fought over critical race theory and the 1619 Project — the subject of a recent episode.

Mr. Wilentz, who published an erudite essay on the many factual errors in the 1619 Project, said Republicans have already exploited the divisive issue.

“It’s a minefield,” he said. 

For more of Mr. Wilentz’s observations about the resuscitation of the Democrats and the importance of civics education at a time of deep political polarization, listen to this episode of ‘History As It Happens.’

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