On Thursday, in his long-awaited and long-awaited initial press conference as president, Joe Biden attempted to traffic not in the contractions of news cycles, but in the wide arcs of history, inserting everything from economic dislocation to recalcitrant stocks. Congress for the current wave of migrants on the Mexican border in the broader context of presidential and even epochal ebbs and flows.
This week, so early in his tenure in the Oval Office, he thus marked not simply another stark contrast to his predecessor, Donald Trump, equally revolutionary and contrary to history. With the 78-year-old Biden lampooned as decrepit by some of the louder voices on the right in particular after stumbling down the stairs of Air Force One, he’s actually leaning toward a projection of an age-acquired wisdom for express a broader view of history. . That prospect, he hopes, will infuse his ambitious agenda with an energy that could place him (if successful) in a category of presidents of staggering consequences.
It was true from early Thursday, when Zeke Miller of the Associated Press asked about immigration reform, gun control, voting rights and climate change.
“Long-term problems,” Biden said in his response. “They have been around for a long time.”
This alone might have sounded like an excuse. Biden went out of his way to point out otherwise. He presented himself as the person who was “hired” to summon his long experience to try to solve intractable problems.
“The elder has the perspective of history,” Russell Riley, co-chair of the presidential oral history program at the University of Virginia, told me.
“The challenges he faces are daunting, and the great challenges are great moments for ambitious presidents, and I think he is visionary enough to seize the moment,” said presidential historian Mark Updegrove. “At the same time, it seems so anomalous given what we’ve experienced for four years, that in many ways it felt like eight or 12 because of the swiftness of the news cycles and all the chaos and turmoil of events around the Trump administration. . “
Trump, of course, was and is the antithesis of a history student. He hadn’t read or read presidential biographies (and said so) even as he sought to become one. “I don’t have much time,” he explained. “I have never.” During his four years in office, he propagated and commissioned (at best) easy interpretations of America’s past. The main way that Trump even dabbled in the presidential annals was the recurring, self-glorifying way in which he compared himself to Abraham Lincoln.
Biden, on the other hand, recently sat down with prominent historians to draw on their expertise. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and his New Deal) and Lyndon Baines Johnson (Great Society) could end up being the closest parallels of the last 100 years to the Biden era “in terms of transforming the country in important ways in a short time,” Michael Beschloss . , one of the attendees, told Mike Allen about Axios.
Of FDR and LBJ, the most compelling comparison might be the latter, based on conversations I’ve had recently with presidential historians. Some of the similarities: Ancient creatures from Capitol Hill. Experienced operators more than great speakers. And unexpected presidents, and in difficult and tumultuous times that doubled as rare opening opportunities.
“It’s important to learn from what worked and what didn’t work in the past and get perspective from the people who study that,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters earlier this week. “It is meant to have an open conversation,” he said of meeting with historians, “about the challenges… that our country is facing and looking back on history. And it’s a time to step back, reflect and use it as lessons to move forward.
Thursday’s 62-minute press conference in the East Room of the White House notably took place in the same space as Biden’s meeting with more than half a dozen high-profile historians.
The journalists’ questions leaned perhaps predictably toward the present. Of the 10 Biden visited, as compiled by my colleague Theodoric Meyer, half asked about immigration. Three asked about the filibuster. There were two more questions about the 2024 presidential campaign (2) than about Covid-19 (0). (“Are reporters missing the big picture and historical nature of Biden’s agenda?” Asked CNN’s Brian Stelter.) Regardless, Biden answered the day’s predominantly inquiries in virtually tectonic terms, consistently evoking not as many cycles (news or elections) as the vast patterns of centuries and generations.
“I think we should go back to a position on obstructionism that existed just when I came to the United States Senate 120 years ago,” he said in response to a question from PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, trying to make a joke about his age. . (Biden, for the record, was elected from Delaware to the upper house not in 1901 but in 1972.)
It became historically granular very quickly. “Between 1917 and 1971, there was obstructionism, there were a total of 58 movements to break an obstructionism all the time. Only last year there were five more times. So it is being abused in a gigantic way, ”he said. “Before you had to sit there and talk and talk and talk and talk until you collapsed. And guess what? People got tired of talking and tired of collapsing. The filibusters collapsed … “
He went from historian to forecaster. “Look, I predict, your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the subject of who triumphed: autocracy or democracy? Because that is what is at stake, not just with China. Look around the world. We are in the middle of a Fourth Industrial Revolution with enormous consequences. Will there be a middle class? How will people adapt to these significant changes in science and technology and the environment? How will they do that? Are democracies equipped? he said in response to a question from Bloomberg’s Justin Sink.
“This,” Biden said, “is a battle between the usefulness of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.”
And in response to another immigration question, this one from Univision’s Janet Rodríguez, Biden cited his own family’s genealogy and the desperation that has fueled America’s growth, with an anecdote that humanizes migrants and justifies the asylum process. while saying at the same time that not everyone enters and not everyone can stay even if they want or deserve it.
“People don’t want to leave” their homes, he said. “When my great-grandfather got on a coffin ship in the Irish Sea,” one generation, he was referring to his maternal great-great-grandfather Owen Finnegan, a White House spokesman told me, the “expectation was: Are you going to live long enough in that ship to reach the United States of America? But they left because of what the British had been doing. They were in real, real trouble. They did not want to leave. But they had no other choice. “
“He’s dealt with all of these issues, so naturally he understands that everything is not new and everything has roots,” said Princeton historian Julian Zelizer, nodding at Biden’s 36 years in the Senate and two terms in the White House as vice president. . “I think it is a comfort to many Americans to be able to see someone again, even if they are still nervous about the conditions we are in, even if they do not necessarily support it, but someone who has some sense of that.
“Donald Trump could never think beyond a given moment,” added Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson. “It’s very different.”
“The contrasts with Trump are, of course, ubiquitous,” John Woolley, co-director of the US Presidency Project, told me in an email. “Part of that contrast for him is reminding us that he has a long-term vision that is informed and not simplistic.”
Biden’s only noted deviation from that long-term vision was not in the past but in the future. Pressed by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins on whether to run for re-election, Biden objected.
“I am a great respectful of destiny,” he said, reiterating a phrase that he has spoken many times over many years. “I’ve never been able to plan … three and a half years ahead for sure.”
He closed his answers to Collins’ line of questions with the use (three times) of a word that again evoked time in a much more expansive way. “I want to change the paradigm,” he said. “I want to change the paradigm. We begin to reward work, not just wealth. I want to change the paradigm ”.
The fact that FDR and LBJ are on the air here at the beginning of this presidency is an unlikely twist at this stage in the life of Biden, who has traditionally been considered more intermediate, more practical than aggressively progressive. For many historians and political analysts I have spoken with, it is, for now at least, a function of the moment rather than of man. At least, they suggest, these comparisons are premature. Biden, after all, has been president for just over two months. But that doesn’t mean these conversations aren’t worth it.
On Thursday night, about six hours after the end of Biden’s press conference, I spoke by phone with Jeffrey Engel, the founding director of the Presidential History Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. We talk about the different chapters of the story, but also about its connective tissue.
FDR was elected president in 1932. LBJ was elected to Congress in 1937 and was elected to the Senate in 1948, and he became president, of course, on November 22, 1963, and he held office until January 1969. And not four years later, Biden was elected to the Senate.
“FDR took LBJ under his wing and used to play poker with him when he was a young congressman. LBJ entered the inner circle in his early years as a young congressman in DC FDR was his personal hero. And Biden is at the end, if you will, of the general Johnson era, or at least the effect of Johnson’s policies, ”Engel said.
“Biden comes to the Senate at the age of 30, and he obviously has so much tragedy at that time as well,” he continued, referring to the car accident that killed his wife and daughter and injured their two children, “and every person in it. Senate wanted to be his mentor, and they had all spent time with LBJ or FDR. “
It is this timeline, the dawn of the possibility of this epic three-step lineage from Depression to pandemic, that underscores how Engel views and listens to Biden right now. “I listen to him when he talks about the work moment. When Biden talks about manpower, he can close his eyes and imagine a New Dealer, ”he said.
“Biden knows,” Engel concluded, “that there are only two or three moments in life that really matter to make a structural difference. And he’s sitting in the middle of one. I am not surprised that he is thinking about a generational change ”.