November 20, 2020
Democracy, Winter, No. 59
Joe Biden is already up against the clock. Amid overlapping public health, economic, racial justice, and climate crises, failure to act and act fast will translate into lives lost, deeper economic pain, and a hastening climate catastrophe. To make matters more dire, it’s looking like the Senate will be a formidable, though not necessarily insurmountable, roadblock.
It is, therefore, essential that the Biden Administration be prepared to capitalize on the momentum that propelled it into office. But even the strongest White House team will not be able to tightly manage all components of this policy onslaught on the timeline required. To succeed, the Biden Administration must embrace creative, sometimes unusual strategies, push many initiatives simultaneously, and rely heavily on the talents of the figures it has appointed.
This will not be Joe Biden’s first experience entering the Oval Office during a moment of crisis. His firsthand knowledge could prove to be a critical asset, but only if he is willing to acknowledge and learn from the Obama Administration’s missteps alongside its victories. To understand where the last response went wrong, it is useful to compare it to that of another Democratic President who took office amid economic calamity: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Shortly after the 2008 election, as Barack Obama’s team of advisers mapped the soon-to-be President’s ambitious agenda onto the Administration’s first months, they quickly came up against a strategic choice. The new President could emulate FDR by charging ahead with multiple initiatives at once or he could opt for a more orderly, step-by-step approach to achieving its goals. For reasons that remain unclear to this day, they chose the latter.
Of course, the Administration’s first priority—halting the economy’s disastrous slide—was non-negotiable. The fight to get the stimulus package passed absorbed the Obama advisory team’s full attention. Democrats in Congress followed the new Administration’s lead; all other initiatives were put on hold.
Only after the Recovery Act was passed did either group turn to advancing additional policy priorities. Health-care reform would not be introduced until June, by which time Obama’s popularity had already eroded considerably. Months of tragicomically fruitless negotiations with Senate Republicans followed. When the Affordable Care Act was finally passed by the House the following March, hardening political gridlock made taking up the rest of Obama’s agenda seem nearly impossible. Labor law reform never received a serious push. And climate and immigration received half-hearted efforts long after Obama’s early political capital had been used up.
Before long the Democrats’ commanding House Majority was gone, and the Administration found itself embroiled in efforts to compromise that were most often futile, sometimes deeply damaging, and always politically ineffective.
Perhaps most notably, it was not until Obama’s second term that he hired John Podesta to engineer a plan to assert energetically the executive branch’s considerable authority. Regulation is often not swift, and four first-term years of tepid efforts to rein in corporate abuse were undercut at every turn by Cass Sunstein at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs were a tragically lost opportunity.
The Roosevelt Administration took a different approach when it assumed power in March of 1933. The incoming President summed up that strategy in a meeting with lawmakers prior to his inauguration, “Gentlemen, we must act now. By acting now, we will assuredly make mistakes. But if we do not act now, we may not even have the opportunity to make mistakes later on.”
Act his Administration did. In his first 100 days, Roosevelt famously signed 15 major pieces of legislation into law. While this period has come to be imagined as quasi-dictatorial in popular memory, at least on the right, Roosevelt was not simply presenting legislation that Congress dutifully passed. Only a fraction of those 15 bills originated in the White House; the vast majority were policy measures that had been under some form of congressional consideration prior to Roosevelt’s inauguration, in some cases for years.
The incoming Roosevelt Administration swept these measures into its New Deal program, lending them the sheen of electoral momentum. Operating under the pressure of dire economic conditions and a tight congressional timeline, the Administration and Congress moved on many fronts at once in the first 100 days and beyond. Given the small size of FDR’s staff and the historic scope of the agenda Congress was considering, White House micro-management was impossible.
Naturally, the two presidents’ differing legislative records cannot only be chalked up to their divergent strategies in this regard. Even if President Roosevelt was not the legislative dictator some make him out to be, he no doubt enjoyed a more productive relationship with his counterparts in Congress than did President Obama (and than will, in all likelihood, President Biden). Some of that, of course, was the result of the makeup of Congress. Look at other aspects of their records, however, and it becomes clear that their differences in strategic philosophy and management style were not just situational but more fundamental.
Despite inheriting a far weaker presidency and administrative state than President Obama would assume in 2009, President Roosevelt used them to much greater effect. Consider, for example, how quickly he put the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), an almost entirely ineffectual holdover from the Hoover Administration, to productive use. Within days of taking office, the RFC (which had, up until that point, only been making scrawny loans to struggling banks) had lent millions to the Chicago Board of Education to pay teachers’ salaries that were many months overdue. The RFC would become a central pillar of the New Deal, but even before that role was codified and bolstered, the Roosevelt Administration was ensuring its existing powers were not left dormant.
Roosevelt also made use of executive power to shift priorities and rework programs when they were falling short of expectations. In the spring of 1933, Congress created the Public Works Administration (PWA), a new agency that would grant loans to private contractors who would complete public infrastructure projects and, in the process, boost employment. By the winter, however, little money had gone out the door. The unemployment crisis was becoming more acute. Roosevelt issued an executive order, shifting funding from the PWA to the Civil Works Administration (CWA) which would employ people directly. Over the course of just two months, the new agency would put four million people to work.
The success of both agencies owed in no small part to their respective leadership—Jesse Jones at the RFC and Harry Hopkins at the CWA and then the WPA. Both men were given significant leeway to put the Administration’s principles and priorities into action, allowing each to accomplish more on a shorter timeline.
It also owed, however, to a willingness to take risks on the part of both Roosevelt and his appointees. In these and other areas, the Administration was often exploring uncharted territory and opening itself to legal challenge. Sometimes, as with the WPA, the risks paid off. At other times, bold efforts were struck down. And yet, in spite of those setbacks, the New Deal is remembered as a success today.
The Obama Administration’s early days were not marked by similar, bold invocations of its (greatly expanded) executive power. Rather, his team of advisors focused its energy on legislative solutions, only turning to executive action when congressional channels had been definitively exhausted. And, although, in theory, Cabinet officers and other senior leaders could have been pushing initiatives forward as the White House focused elsewhere, in reality, little was allowed to move without White House oversight. Further pressure on scarce White House time meant, in practice, that fewer things were accomplished.
The Biden Administration hasn’t even begun, yet many of those in his orbit and outside of it are already expressing concern that there simply won’t be time for it to accomplish all that it must. The likelihood that the Senate will be in Republican hands has quickly led this pessimism to border on nihilism.
The task before Biden is daunting, but despair is simply not an option. By heeding key lessons from FDR’s successes and Obama’s missteps, the Biden Administration can give itself the best chance of success.
Move on All Fronts at Once: Especially in this period of hyper-polarization, it is important that the next Administration fully take advantage of post-election popularity to accomplish as much as possible. As is clear from the Obama Administration’s first year, attempting to tightly sequence and control the legislative or executive branch process will lead to high approval ratings being squandered.
The Biden Administration must be prepared to act quickly on multiple fronts come January. Different processes should move simultaneously, with all House committees advancing necessary measures under their jurisdictions side-by-side. Critically, the new Administration should not negotiate against itself. Biden has to pursue an aggressive approach of pushing for what he believes in. Premature compromises are demobilizing; they relieve potential pressure on obstructionists and fail to appease the likes of Mitch McConnell. If Biden loses, he should lose in a way that sets up the 2022 midterm argument the Democrats will seek to make—a lesson Obama never learned.
No matter how well managed or how passionately contested, the legislative process would be unlikely to deliver every plank of Biden’s agenda even should the Georgia run-offs go remarkably well. Executive branch action will offer a direct means by which to achieve many of the Administration’s goals. Rather than viewing these options as a second best alternative for when legislative solutions fail, as Obama did, the Biden Administration and his team must make use of executive power out of the gate.
Use All Available Resources: To ensure that much-needed relief and reform arrives as fast as possible, a Biden Administration must eschew the White House’s traditional stranglehold on policymaking and rely to the maximum degree possible on allies in Congress and the executive branch.
Over the past several decades, power has increasingly come to be concentrated within the White House. Presidents and their small staffs exert wide-ranging and often exacting control over executive branch administration and, at times, the legislative process. By centralizing policy- and decision-making in this way, necessary action has become dependent on the capacities, expertise, and available mental bandwidth of White House staff. A Biden Administration must look to other sources of capacity and expertise.
The Biden transition team will have spent countless hours and immense resources selecting the best possible candidates for these specialized roles; allowing these figures to represent the Administration in their areas of expertise could meaningfully improve the quality of proposed policies, ease implementation following passage, and relieve pressure on an overburdened White House staff.
That’s why Biden must “trust the process” and be willing to devolve authority to Cabinet officers and other appointees in order to use the executive branch to full effect. Rolling back Trump’s deregulatory record, re-regulating in its place, and ramping up enforcement on everyone from Wall Street titans to tax cheats and polluters will be no small task. These potential accomplishments simply will not happen if approached sequentially or micromanaged.
And as Eric Rauchway has written, FDR promised and delivered a Cabinet “free of financial influence.” The Biden Administration must also prioritize appointing officials to his Cabinet and powerful independent agencies who can be trusted to fight tirelessly for the public interest with relative autonomy.
Governance will be hard while the challenges are immense. A coterie of White House staffers wheeling and dealing with Mitch McConnell seems like a jump-the-shark season of “The West Wing” rather than a plan. Instead, Biden needs to use the tools available in the House and across the executive branch to queue up as many fights and wins as possible.
Joe Biden should know that history will be watching. Will he be Jimmy Carter 2.0 or first-term Barack Obama and preside over an epic partisan collapse, or will he be a modern-day FDR?