If Joe Biden manages to defeat Donald Trump in November, he will be leading a nation reeling from the worst pandemic in a century. An economic depression is already here as the body count mounts daily. It is the kind of world-historical crisis few people living today can truly recall, and one that could very well devour Biden, who has not been regarded as a visionary leader during his decades in politics.
But there is one presidential model Biden could ultimately emulate, out of necessity, for better and for worse: Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Fifty years on, it’s still hard to get a good grasp on who Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, really was. No Democrat or Republican in the second half of the 20th century accomplished as much on the home front: Medicare and Medicaid, perhaps our last unabashedly bold domestic achievements, were created under Johnson, as well as civil rights legislation that cemented the gains of a world-changing movement. Both Johnson and Biden were creatures of the U.S. Senate: Johnson was a former majority leader and Biden served there for more than 30 years.
Johnson’s heroic domestic agenda is a major part of his legacy, but so is the needless slaughter overseas: the Vietnam War, a disaster that would define generations. Subsequent war hawks failed to heed the lessons of Vietnam, and it can be argued the catastrophic military interventions of the following decades carried Johnson’s poisonous influence.
Comparisons between Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, and Johnson are likely to rankle since Johnson was such a substantial figure, but they may be instructive about what kind of president Biden could be. As of today, his odds of defeating Donald Trump are probably greater than 50 percent, despite his lackluster campaign apparatus, a sexual assault allegation, and the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has confined him to his home, sidelining him from news cycles. Just as most people vastly underrated Trump’s chances of winning in 2016, many on the left are probably too shellshocked to realize Biden can likely spend little time beyond Delaware and still win in November. He is poised, as of now, to take back swing states Hillary Clinton lost, and his commanding victory over Bernie Sanders shows, for now, he is retaining support from older white voters, who largely defected to Trump four years ago. Trump, of course, can win re-election. It’s just that it won’t be as easy as last time, since Trump’s victory was predicated on razor-thin margins in a few states that traditionally went to Democrats. Biden has gained ground on Trump in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and even Ohio, where Trump crushed Clinton in 2016.
If Biden, the former vice president, takes office in 2021, he has the potential to be the most far-reaching Democratic president, domestically at least, we have seen since Johnson. Given Biden’s history, that may seem absurd. He spent most of his career in the Senate defending corporate interests, shilling for the credit card industry, and watering down bankruptcy protections for millions of Americans. Until 2005, private student loans were eligible for dismissal under bankruptcy protections just like other forms of private credit, but with Biden’s support, Congress passed a law that made it vastly more difficult for struggling former students to discharge their debts and start over. He opposed busing and forged alliances with racist Southern senators, and supported policies that led to the mass incarceration of black and brown Americans, writing punitive laws that toughened prison sentences for drug offenses. And he voted for repealing the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated investment and commercial banking, paving the way for the 2008 economic crash.
So, given that, why would a wobbly, nearly 80-year-old centrist be the kind of Democrat who could go further than Barack Obama, the last great hope liberals had in the White House, ever could? It’s simple: Biden has always been a creature of his time, and the COVID-19 crisis could force him to veer further left than he ever would have in another context. In a recent, somewhat overlooked interview with Politico, he spoke specifically about the kind of stimulus bill he would back as president.
It would need to be a “hell of a lot bigger” than the $2 trillion CARES Act passed last month, including fresh aid to localities crushed by the virus, Biden said. The aid would be required to prevent cities and states from “laying off a hell of a lot of teachers and cops and firefighters.”
This was notable because the Trump-approved stimulus was already more than twice as large as any Obama backed when Biden served with him as vice president and Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress. Rejecting the advice of progressive economists like Robert Reich, the former secretary of labor, Obama’s post-2008 stimulus spending halted at around $800 billion, enough to beat back another Great Depression but too limited to power a quicker recovery. In the fallout from the crash, state and municipal governments across the country contracted, laying off public employees, cutting back on key services, and reducing the social safety net. Even as unemployment numbers fell, wages stagnated and many Americans fell into more precarious work.
It was the sort of self-defeating austerity that budget wonks embraced in the late 2000s. Obama himself, obsessed with shrinking the deficit, partnered with conservative Republicans to impose federal budget cuts. The argument for containing America’s ballooning deficit amounted to an orthodoxy rarely challenged: Eventually, it would get harder for America to borrow money, interest rates would rise, and rapid inflation would accompany any attempts at aggressively printing and spending money.
In 2020, the deficit is bigger than ever and interest rates and inflation are nonexistent. Oil prices are absurdly low. There is no downside to the federal government spending near unlimited amounts of money on providing direct payments to Americans until the pandemic ends, as well as paying businesses to keep people employed. There probably never was one to begin with.
Into this new reality steps Biden, who can be believed when he talks up a bigger than $2 trillion stimulus. With more than 30 million Americans out of work, we are closer than ever to the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt embraced Keynesian economics to create new federal programs, like the Works Progress Administration and Social Security, to bolster the safety net, put millions of people to work, and stave off the worst effects of the Depression. Biden is not an FDR-style visionary—the Roosevelt administration created the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and gave private-sector labor unions the right to engage in collective bargaining—but he doesn’t have to be. The average Democrat now embraces heavy spending to keep businesses open and prevent local governments from slashing essential services. Some Republicans are changing too. John Hawley, a first-term GOP senator from Missouri, is violating fiscal conservative norms by calling for the government to subsidize business payrolls during the pandemic.
A Biden stimulus, especially if he has a Democratic majority in the Senate, could lead to remarkably aggressive spending on infrastructure, education, and public health. Biden understands there is no upside to letting local governments shrivel and die, even if it’s to contain a deficit temporarily. As Europeans learned in their own economic crisis, austerity is a downward spiral, with deep cuts leading to greater economic pain. The economy will not be saved in a world with coronavirus, with millions of people unable to pay their rent and mortgages or choosing between their medical bills and groceries, never mind clothing, travel, and cars.
Biden will not embrace progressive priorities like single-payer health care, but it’s worth noting that he is on friendlier terms with Sanders, his old Senate colleague, than Sanders ever was with Hillary Clinton. Sanders could wield influence if Biden were president, especially since Sanders is still the leader of a large movement that made him the runner-up in two Democratic primaries. On renewing the FDR vision of big domestic spending, both men may well end up in agreement.
Critics on the left may think this is too rosy a prediction. Perhaps they are right. Larry Summers, a champion of corporate deregulation, is now advising Biden. Summers, for whatever it is worth, is now speaking about the importance of stimulus spending to revive the economy.
None of this optimism for Biden, though, applies to the foreign policy realm, and it’s here that the legacy of Johnson intersects in a much darker way. Biden has always been a supporter of regime-change wars. He backed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when it was clear the war was built on a lie and would lead to the destabilization and devastation of the Middle East. At best, he will offer a return to the Obama years of putting a friendlier face on violent interventions: drone strikes, overthrow in foreign countries like Libya, and military aid to Israel to oppress poor Palestinians. Biden made this clear when he announced he would maintain Trump’s policy of keeping the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, a move that needlessly inflamed tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
For many Americans, Biden would mark a return to normalcy on the world stage that would be comforting. He won’t insult world leaders and he won’t be laughed at. The damage wrought by the American military will be done out of view. With a president who speaks to a broad international consensus, America’s standing in the world will increase, relative to Trump’s presidency. But if there is ever another opportunity for a war like Iraq, there’s no guarantee Biden would be able to stay away.
The zeitgeist is moving ever further away from violent interventions abroad—Trump won a Republican primary mocking his rivals’ support for the Iraq War—but the American government can find ways to further a murderous status quo without too many prying eyes. For better and worse, a Biden presidency would be about the moment surrounding him. He will never be ahead of his time.
This will be nothing like Obama’s historic arrival in the White House. It will instead be treated as the emergency brake on Trump’s fatal incompetence. A Biden presidency would begin with lowered expectations, but also offer a reprieve to those weary of deranged news cycles on overdrive. Biden’s only priority, out of the gate, will be managing the fallout of the worst pandemic since 1918. We can only hope, if he does win, the nation he inherits gets the kind of presidency it will need in its darkest hour.
Ross Barkan is a writer and journalist from New York City.
At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, one ill-fated cruise ship became a symbol for the panic and confusion that would soon engulf the globe. Doug Bock Clark uncovers what two harrowing weeks trapped aboard the ocean liner felt like—for unsuspecting tourists, for frightened crew members, even for the captain himself.
Originally Appeared on GQ