“F.D.R. wasn’t by nature a revolutionary, but out of the trauma of the Great Depression he helped unleash a revolution that made America a richer, fairer and better country,” said Cohen. “The same is possible again — if we get everything right.”
Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, along with a broad recognition that America has taken a wrong path, create a similar opportunity for Joe Biden. While Biden isn’t charismatic, he’s a reassuring veteran who knows how the system works and doesn’t frighten voters — and who thus has a chance, like F.D.R., to be elected with a mandate and make history.
Some of Biden’s aides are telling him to think in such grand terms, and he seems drawn to the idea. “I do think we’ve reached a point, a real inflection in American history,” he told reporters a few days ago. “And I don’t believe it’s unlike what Roosevelt was met with.”
Biden added that “we have an opportunity to make some really systemic change,” but for now his policy positions don’t show much sign of that. He is likely to favor a public option as a path to universal health coverage, stronger moves on climate change, a higher federal minimum wage, easier access to college, and jobs programs to reduce inequality. If enacted, these would put America on a path more like that of Europe and Canada, but they would be short of Rooseveltian.
Add a universal child care/pre-K program modeled on the military’s, universal dental coverage, Canada-style child allowances to cut child poverty in half, major investments in K-12 education for disadvantaged children, “baby bonds” to reduce wealth inequality, greater union protections and “bandwidth for all” — then you are talking history.
Is that a pipe dream? Perhaps. But a series of national crises may have exposed our failings enough to give us a chance at a do-over.
This hope is not Pollyannaish. It rests on a tragic toll of Covid-19 deaths, and it requires a thousand caveats. Trump might win in November. If Biden wins, a Republican Senate might stymie his proposals and block his nominees. Deficits are now so enormous that politics may become a dispiriting fight about which programs to cut, not which dreams to finance. Veteran liberals are scarred by memories of unfulfilled hope that followed Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Bill Clinton’s in 1992, Jimmy Carter’s in 1976: Hope is the engine oil of campaigns, but it burns up in the heat of governing.