Many progressives are hoping for great things from Joe Biden. The United States faces huge problems aside from the pandemic and its economic fallout. There is an opportunity here for a bold and progressive president to make his mark and do great good.
This brings an inevitable comparison to the era of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), the president whose New Deal saved the country from the worst of the Great Depression and saved capitalism in the bargain. FDR, assuming the presidency in 1933, and faced with economic collapse and unemployment of 25 percent, introduced public works programs and financial reforms that put people back to work, restored their faith in the system and gave them hope.
Today the problem isn’t a lack of work (at least pre-pandemic it wasn’t), it’s the kind of work and its rewards. The situation today is more akin to the era of the Gilded Age. At the end of the 19th century, the creation of great wealth was paralleled by the growth of great inequality. The great wealth was absorbed primarily by the very rich. Corporations were monopolistic and the two major parties favoured the wealthy—the robber barons—over working people.
All this parallels the situation in the U.S. today. Great wealth has been accumulated by such as the dot-com billionaires while the incomes of the middle class stagnate with many forced into the precariat. Oligarchs and corporations dominate both Democratic and Republican parties.
Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt was elected in 1901 and under his Square Deal set about breaking up corporate monopolies and enabling workers. Prioritizing labour over capital, he argued that human welfare was more important than property rights. He even proposed banning corporate political donations.
His greatest interest was conservation. During his presidency, he created the United States Forest Service and established a multitude of national forests, bird reserves and national parks.
This is precisely the challenge that faces President Biden: breaking the political power of the rich, ensuring decent jobs for all working people, and instituting strong environmental measures.
Another FDR would be a blessing to this divided nation, but the president Americans really need is another Teddy Roosevelt.