Why can’t Biden be the next LBJ or FDR? It comes down to math.

Susan Walsh/AP
President Joe Biden walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, as he prepares leave on a trip to Michigan to pitch his "Build Back Better" agenda, Oct. 5, 2021.

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Any expectation that President Joe Biden could be the second coming of LBJ or FDR stops at a cold, hard fact: His congressional majorities are almost impossibly narrow. 

“It’s hard to be a truly transformational president with zero-point-zero extra votes in the Senate, and virtually no extra votes in the House,” says veteran Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman of California. 

Why We Wrote This

The president has a sweeping domestic agenda, and the slimmest possible Democratic majority with which to try to pass it. The difficulty in getting that done has been on vivid display lately.

In today’s 50-50 Senate, the Democratic “majority” comes only with the vice president’s ability to break ties. In the House, it’s a mere 220-212.

Democrats’ nominal control in Washington frees Republicans from responsibility to govern. That reality is seen most urgently in Congress’ need to avert a catastrophic default on the national debt later this month. Should a default occur, it would be the latest crisis to befall the administration, after missteps over the pandemic, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the Southern border. The president’s job approval sank below 50% in August, and it has stayed there since. 

But while Mr. Biden’s first term may not look like LBJ’s, Representative Sherman thinks he will ultimately get a good chunk of his domestic agenda passed. “Biden is realistic about what to get and is strategic about how to get the most he can,” he says.

He was a man of the Senate, a skilled legislator who rose to the vice presidency under a much younger, more charismatic president. Upon assuming the Oval Office in his own right, he knew that his time to accomplish big things was limited – and he swung for the fences.

That president was Lyndon B. Johnson, a force of nature who has morphed from man to legend in the half century since he left office. And President Joe Biden is trying to follow the LBJ playbook in key ways. He knows time is short and he’s aiming high, attempting to pass a massive domestic agenda that aims to build on the legacies of both Presidents Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

But any expectation that President Biden could be the second coming of LBJ or FDR stops at a cold, hard fact: His congressional majorities are almost impossibly narrow. 

Why We Wrote This

The president has a sweeping domestic agenda, and the slimmest possible Democratic majority with which to try to pass it. The difficulty in getting that done has been on vivid display lately.

“It’s hard to be a truly transformational president with zero-point-zero extra votes in the Senate, and virtually no extra votes in the House,” says veteran Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman of California. “Look at what Franklin Roosevelt had. Look what Lyndon Johnson had.” 

In today’s 50-50 Senate, the Democratic “majority” comes only with the vice president’s ability to break ties. In the House, the Democratic majority is a mere 220-212, with three vacancies. By contrast, the authors of the Depression-era New Deal and 1960s Great Society programs were operating with wide Democratic majorities, giving party leaders a true mandate from voters – and a cushion that allowed some Democratic lawmakers to vote no. 

Still, Representative Sherman, a member of the 96-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, predicts a Biden success – albeit using a slightly different metric: “If you’re going to weight transformational accomplishments by legislative majorities, he’s going to be off the charts.”

Such an outcome is far from certain. After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi canceled a promised vote last Friday on a popular $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill at the urging of progressives – who insist that bill plus the larger package of climate and social spending must move in tandem – Democrats have been forced back to the drawing board to salvage the president’s agenda. 

Looming deadlines

Democratic congressional leaders have moved their self-imposed deadline to Oct. 31, though Mr. Biden himself made clear last Friday that’s not hard and fast. Patience has become his watchword. 

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s in six minutes, six days, or in six weeks,” the president said.  

Trust between progressives and the Democratic Party’s smaller centrist bloc has been shaken. Mr. Biden – who lately appears to have cast his lot with the left, despite his history as a moderate – held video conferences the past two days with House members of both blocs, and on Tuesday afternoon, flew to Michigan to pitch his “Build Back Better” agenda. He appeared at a union training center in Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin’s district, which President Donald Trump narrowly won in 2020. 

AP/File
President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Washington, Aug. 6, 1965. Surrounding the president from left, directly above his right hand, are Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Speaker John McCormack, Democratic Rep. Emanuel Celler of New York, first daughter Luci Johnson, and Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois.

Next year’s midterm elections loom large, as do gubernatorial races – including a close governor’s race in Virginia next month. In modern times, the president’s party almost always loses seats in his first midterm election, and control of Congress is clearly on the line. The need to demonstrate competence and accomplishment only adds to the sense of urgency. 

Mr. Biden appears to be in such a tight spot, some wonder if having Democratic congressional majorities is even a net benefit for him. In January, Johns Hopkins University political scientist Yascha Mounk suggested in The Atlantic that Mr. Biden might have been better off if his party had not narrowly won control of the Senate, since then it would have been “much simpler for Biden to manage the expectations of the party’s activist wing.” Professor Mounk also posited that Senate control could make it less likely for Mr. Biden to win reelection.

Today, Democrats’ nominal control in Washington frees Republicans from responsibility to govern. That reality is seen most urgently in Congress’ need to avert a catastrophic default on the national debt later this month. Should such a default occur or even come close enough to harm the nation’s credit, it would be only the latest crisis to befall the Biden administration – after missteps over the pandemic, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the Southern border. The president’s job approval sank below 50% in August, and has stayed there since. 

The myth of LBJ’s persuasiveness

As for Mr. Biden’s ability to win over members of Congress to pass his agenda, the LBJ comparison again comes into play. But the so-called Johnson treatment, in which the larger-than-life Texan used sheer size, force of personality, and intricate knowledge of detail to bend members to his will, is more myth than reality, says George Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. 

“LBJ had a lot more power as Senate majority leader than he had as president – the power to change senators’ minds, for example,” Professor Edwards says. “He knew that perfectly well.” 

The effectiveness of presidential speechifying and travel to shape public opinion is also overrated, he adds. 

“We should not expect the president to be changing a lot of minds, because they never do – including LBJ,” says Mr. Edwards, author of the book “On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit.” “They don’t change a lot of minds with the public and they don’t change a lot of minds with Congress. When presidents have success in Congress, it’s because they have clear majorities.” 

Presidents’ ability to sway opinion has become even more difficult in recent times, given the proliferation of partisan media, social media, and political hyperpartisanship. 

The fact that Mr. Johnson’s rise to power came after the 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy should also not be underestimated, says presidential historian Robert Dallek. The country was already in a mood for change and for progressive advancement, he says – both in addressing civil rights and in adding health care to the social safety net. 

“LBJ in a sense had a united country, which came together in anger and resentment over the fact that Kennedy had been killed,” says Mr. Dallek, author of a two-volume Johnson biography.

Stylistically, he says, Mr. Biden is no LBJ. The current president is a “much less cutthroat politician than Johnson was.”

“I’ve met Biden, and found him to be a nice man,” Mr. Dallek says. “He knows how nasty politics can be, but he prefers to work through accommodation.” 

Biden allies in Congress were hopeful last Friday after his meeting with the House Democratic Caucus. 

Longtime Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters that the president was “magnificent,” “factually grounded,” and “ready to offer respect for all views.” 

Representative Sherman, for his part, pushed back on the idea that Mr. Biden might be better off without slim control of both houses of Congress. 

“It’s easier to bridge the divide between one end of the Democratic Party and the other than to deal with the divide between the middle of the Democratic Party and a good chunk of the Republican Party,” he told the Monitor after leaving the Democratic caucus meeting with the president in a basement hallway of the Capitol. “Biden is realistic about what to get and is strategic about how to get the most he can.”

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