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Biden, Like FDR And LBJ, Sees Opportunity In A Moment Of Crisis

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Much of official Washington has spent these last 24 hours debating the specifics of President Biden's American Families Plan. He unveiled it last night during his joint address to Congress. The size and the scope of all the legislation President Biden has put forth over his first hundred days in office speaks, though, to a bigger debate, one that has played out between Democrats and Republicans for decades, maybe for forever - what role should the federal government play in the lives of Americans? Well, for Democrats like FDR, LBJ, the answer is, it should play a big role.

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LYNDON B JOHNSON: So we want to open the gates to opportunity. But we're also going to give all our people, Black and white, the help that they need to walk through those gates.

KELLY: For Republicans - think Ronald Reagan - a smaller one.

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RONALD REAGAN: In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

KELLY: For much of the last 40 years, Republicans have carried the mantle of Ronald Reagan, working to turn back programs championed by their Democratic predecessors. Well, last night, Joe Biden argued Reagan was wrong.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: My fellow Americans, trickle down - trickle-down economics has never worked, and it's time to grow the economy from the bottom and the middle out.

KELLY: We're going to flesh out this back-and-forth now with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I'm very glad to be with you.

KELLY: So I think we managed to just cover eight decades of American history there.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: But do you agree with the basic premise we laid out, that there is this fundamental tension, this back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans?

KEARNS GOODWIN: No question. And really, you know, American history has been almost like a kaleidoscope in terms of moving from one of those points of view to the other. I mean, you have the 1920s, where there's the feeling that government should be small and that the economy and that business should be the prime mover of what's happening in the society. And of course, that leads to the lack of national leadership when the Depression comes in.

And the crisis that FDR confronts in his very first inaugural talks about the fact that it wasn't the people's fault; it was the lack of leadership, and he intends to provide that leadership and will call Congress into an emergency session and have action and action now, where the government will help with the problems that the people are feeling. And then, suddenly, there are headlines in the newspaper - the government still lives; we have a leader. So that's the beginning, in a certain sense, of that transference from one way of looking at government and business and the other one, and FDR comes along right then. And we're going to see it again and again as we go through history.

KELLY: Well, and stay with the role of crisis. What role did crisis play in presidents coming along, being able to dream big, pass ambitious and very costly government programs, policies? LBJ, I think, would have been the first to admit he wouldn't have been able to get done what he got done on civil rights and other issues had he not inherited a presidency after a terrible crisis - President Kennedy's assassination.

KEARNS GOODWIN: There's no question what a crisis does, is to create an opportunity for a president to mobilize the full resources of the nation to meet it. And you saw that with FDR. You saw it with LBJ. And I think that's what we're seeing with Mr. Biden right now. He has a window of opportunity, I think, in some ways, because he was able to handle the crisis that was dealt to him right away in terms of vaccines, so that maybe he's created a trust in government because the government was able to distribute those vaccines in that hundred days in a greater way even than his target had suggested.

And now that that trust is building and perhaps a younger base for the Democratic Party, a more diverse base, more belief in government, he needs to use that opportunity, he feels, right now to take those next, more systemic steps. And that's exactly what FDR did. He handled the banking crisis first, the most important thing he had to do. And Congress, he had just called into session to deal with the banking crisis. He was going to let them go, and then, suddenly, he realized, hmm, there's a momentum here; I'm going to keep them here. And he kept them for a hundred days. And that's when the hundred days really began.

And it's so interesting that Biden has used that hundred days and his success in dealing with some of the problems of the hundred days as a foundation for the further reforms that he wants. That's exactly what FDR did. He moved systemically from the banking crisis to jobs and then regulation of the stock market, banking legislation, so that he moved step by step, strategically. And I think that's why Biden is moving from the hundred days now to the systemic reforms that he's suggesting.

KELLY: Although where does Ronald Reagan fit in here? He also inherited an economic crisis, awful inflation, awful unemployment, and then, of course, the Iranian hostage crisis was playing out. And he decided to go in a very different direction. Why?

KEARNS GOODWIN: So interesting. I mean, Ronald Reagan comes to his first joint session, just as Biden came to his first joint session - the economy is in deep trouble, as it is for President Biden as well. But indeed, as he said, government is the problem, not the solution. And he called for ending the New Deal consensus - essentially, massive tax cuts and huge cuts in federal spending. And what he argued that night was, let government get out of the way. And then he got great applause by saying, there's nothing wrong with the American economy that the Americans acting together cannot fix. And Democrats applauded him just because of the - I think the vigor of the way he said it, as well as Republicans. And he said, thank you very much; I think I should arrange to quit right here.

But, yes, he used the crisis in a very different way for his belief that if they could let government get out of the way and have tax cuts, the economy would splurge and that that would be the means to go forward. So that continuing kaleidoscope has been part of our history for a long, long time.

KELLY: Well, and to land us back in the current moment - and talk about coming to office in a moment of crisis - Joe Biden arrives in the middle of pandemic, economic crisis, racial justice reckoning, disputed election where a whole lot of Americans don't even believe he won. To what extent do you think that is what is propelling him? Is he seeing a moment of huge crisis and thinking, OK, this requires a huge governmental response?

KEARNS GOODWIN: I think that's right. I mean, I think without the crisis, it's hard to know that he would have gone as deep as he has in the systemic changes that he wants to bring about. And I think there's a sense of urgency. He looks back on previous - or he should, from history, look back on previous moments of crises, and they provide that window, but they don't always last that long. I mean, when LBJ won his landslide in 1964, he got his White House staff together, and he said, this isn't going to last very long, so get off your asses, and get every single one of these programs through. And in the midterm elections in 1966, after that landslide, he loses. Governor Reagan is - becomes governor in California, and you're beginning to see that change.

So I think what Biden is feeling is that sense of urgency. The crisis may dissipate as time goes by, but he needs it right now to start moving forward. And history suggests that that's true, that it doesn't last very long. And you have that sense of urgency. He's also at a stage in his life where you're not planning for the future. You're not being cautious because you wonder what your next step is going to be. This is his moment, and he does seem, in some ways, to be the man for the moment.

KELLY: Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. She's the author of many books on American history. The most recent is "Leadership In Turbulent Times." Thank you.

KEARNS GOODWIN: You are very welcome. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOCKHEAD'S "FAREWELL SPACEMAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.