Like Mr. Roosevelt’s First Hundred Days, the $1.9 trillion dollar Rescue Plan sought to offer relief from the pandemic and a path back to normalcy. It lacked the political appeal and psychological impact of Mr. Roosevelt’s blizzard of legislative acronyms, but it seemed to help put the nation back on the road to recovery, amid rising vaccination rates, plummeting case numbers and a surging economy.
The analogy does not hold so clearly anymore, not since the summer’s optimism gave way to the Delta variant, rising inflation, a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and ultimately malaise. At the same time, Mr. Biden’s legislative agenda transitioned to longer-term, progressive policy goals. Many Democrats from across the ideological spectrum believed that popular legislative initiatives, from a bipartisan infrastructure bill to the wide-ranging social spending bill, would help the president improve his popularity. They have had no effect.
While the legacy of Mr. Roosevelt is often cited as the blueprint for building a political coalition with progressive legislation, there’s not much reason to believe his initiatives would have yielded political dominance if they did not have a clear connection to recovering from crisis and depression.
Public opinion data from the 1930s is fairly sparse, but there is only equivocal evidence that the public was ideologically inclined toward expanded government, organized labor or social democracy. The public supported many New Deal programs, but wanted Mr. Roosevelt to be “more conservative” by 1938. By then, nearly 40 percent of Democrats preferred a conservative Democrat to a New Dealer if Mr. Roosevelt did not seek a third term.
Indeed, Mr. Biden’s efforts today might be more reminiscent of Mr. Roosevelt’s second term, when the economy fell back into recession and Mr. Roosevelt unsuccessfully pushed a more liberal agenda. The result was the formation of the so-called “conservative coalition” of Republicans and anti-New Deal Southern Democrats. The New Deal had come to an end.
The Biden administration does appear to recognize the disconnect between the aims of its agenda and the demands of the public. At his news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Biden was generally focused on the coronavirus and inflation. But his legislative agenda remains focused on voting rights or Build Back Better.
Another initiative might be more tailored to the Biden administration’s political challenge: a new effort to increase the production of semiconductors, which passed the Senate over the summer as part of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act.