The Two Faces of Joe Biden
The press is building an image of a "radical" progressive hero, while reality looks a lot like the same corporate Democrat
On April Fool’s Day, CNN ran an “analysis” of Joe Biden’s presidency:
Will JRB take his place alongside FDR and LBJ?
CNN explained “JRB” had just unveiled a $2 trillion infrastructure plan “to boost ordinary working Americans rather than the wealthy,” a program that together with his $1.9 trillion Covid rescue doubles “as a bid to lift millions of Americans out of poverty.”
The news is like high school. One day, one kid comes in wearing Dior sneakers and Nike X Ambush pants, and two days later, that’s all you see in the halls. The “Biden-as-FDR” stories raced around News High, with headlines like “With nods to FDR, JFK and LBJ, Biden goes big on infrastructure plan” (Yahoo!) and “Can Biden achieve an FDR-style presidency? A historian sees surprising parallels” (Washington Post). Even the New Yorker’s naysayingtake, “Is Biden Really the Second Coming of F.D.R. and L.B.J.?” read at first glance like an affirmation.
That this high-flown language came on the heels of Biden’s people whispering F.D.R. comparisons in the ears of reporters for weeks, and Biden himself calling his plan “a once-in-a-generation investment in America,” seemed not to bother anyone. We live in a time when a president can be said to have “sharply cut poverty” the moment he signs a relief bill, so why not say, as CNN editorialists Stephen Collison and Caitlin Hu did, that this new bill’s passage would immediately allow Biden to “lay claim to a spot in the Democratic pantheon alongside Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson?”
This would only be natural, they said, since “Scranton Joe” has long despaired over the silver spoon inequities of Donald Trump’s trickle-down economy:
The President complained as he unveiled his plan in Pittsburgh -- the kind of gritty blue-collar city he loves -- that the top 1% saw their wealth rise by $4 trillion during the pandemic while millions of Americans lost jobs. "Just goes to show you how distorted and unfair our economy has become," Biden said. "Wasn't always this way. Well, it's time to change that."
Left unmentioned was that the same gritty, blue-collar president oversaw the TARP bailout, which resulted in a similar Trumpian windfall for the 1%. The richest saw their share of America’s wealth increase from 30% in 2010 to 39% in 2016. Median household net worth fell 34% from a peak in 2007 to the end of the Obama-Biden presidency, while banks in 2009 had the best year they would have until 2020, that “unfair” bailout year Biden complained about.
Pundits have long been working on revising that history. By last summer, the Atlantic was writing this about Biden’s management of the other bailout:
Critics on the left faulted him and Obama for not making the stimulus package bigger (though keeping it below $1 trillion was the price of winning necessary Republican votes for its passage in the Senate).
That’s just not true. Certainly, Republicans would have hammered Obama for a stimulus of any size, but Obama officials decided on those levels on their own. We’ve known this since 2012, when the New Yorker published a piece outing the fact that Larry Summers advised the incoming president to prioritize deficit reduction over stimulus. You can read the 57-page secret Summers memo here.
With a partisan divide wedded to a hyper-concentrated landscape, commercial media companies can now sell almost any narrative they want. They can disappear the past with relative ease, and the present can be pushed whichever way a handful of key decision-makers thinks will sell best with audiences.
In the case of Biden, we’ve seen in the first few months that the upscale, cosmopolitan target audiences of outlets like CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post want to believe they’re living through a “radical,” “transformative” presidency, the political antidote to the Trump years. The same crowd of West Wing power-tweeters was leading the charge against “purity” in politics about eight minutes ago.
In fact, in the 2019-2020 primary season, Bernie Sanders was regularlylambasted by the same blue-leaning press outlets for trying to re-imagine F.D.R. through programs with names like the “Green New Deal.” Proposal after proposal that had been directly inspired by F.D.R. was described as too expensive, unrealistic, or a political non-starter heading into a general election.
Now that the real version of that brand of politics has been safely eliminated, a new PR campaign is stressing that Democrats did elect F.D.R. after all. Moreover, a legend is being built that crime-bill signing, PATRIOT-Act inspiring, Iraq-war-humping Joe Biden wanted all along to be a radical progressive, but was held back by the intransigence of the evil Republicans. Is that even remotely true?
Observe, for instance, the hilarious Ezra Klein editorial that just ran in the New York Times, called “Four Ways to Look at the Radicalism of Joe Biden” (someone actually wrote that headline!):
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