On Thursday, in his long-awaited, much-anticipated first press conference as president, Joe Biden attempted to circulate not in the twitches of news cycles but in the sprawling arcs of history, inserting everything from economic upheavals to the unruly actions of Congress current increase in migrants on the Mexican border in the broader context of presidential and even epochal ebb and flow.
This week, so early in his tenure in the Oval Office, was not just another stark contrast to his predecessor – Donald Trump – equally steeped in history and averse. With Biden, 78, mocked as decrepit by some of the loudest voices on the right, especially after stumbling on the stairs to Air Force One, he’s actually leaning against a projection of an age-acquired wisdom for a longer look at the Expressing history. He hopes that this perspective will fill his ambitious agenda with an energy that (if successful) could place him (if successful) in a category of presidents with astonishing consistency.
It was true from the start when Zeke Miller of the Associated Press asked about immigration reform, gun control, voting rights and climate change.
“Long term problems,” said Biden in his response. “It’s been around a long time.”
That alone could have sounded like an excuse. Biden tried to signal the opposite. He introduced himself as the person “hired” to gain years of experience and try to solve unsolvable problems.
“The elder has the perspective of history,” said Russell Riley, co-chair of the president’s oral history program at the University of Virginia.
“The challenges he faces are enormous, and great challenges are great moments for ambitious presidents, and I think he is visionary enough to seize this moment,” said Presidential historian Mark Updegrove. “At the same time, given the experience we’ve had for the past four years, it seems so unusual that, given the rapidity of news cycles and the chaos and turmoil of events surrounding the Trump administration, we feel like eight or twelve in many ways felt. ”
Trump was and is of course the opposite of a history student. He didn’t have or read any presidential biographies (and said so) when trying to become one. “I don’t have a lot of time,” he explained. “I never.” During his four-year tenure, he propagated and commissioned (at best) simple interpretations of the American past. The main way Trump even looked at President’s annals was the recurring and self-glorifying manner in which he compared himself to Abraham Lincoln.
Biden, on the other hand, recently sat down with prominent historians to leverage their expertise. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and his New Deal) and Lyndon Baines Johnson (Great Society) could be the closest parallels in the last 100 years to the Biden era “to change the country in important ways in a short time,” said Michael Beschloss, one the participant, told Mike Allen of Axios.
The more compelling comparison between FDR and LBJ could be the latter, based on conversations I recently had with historians of the President. Some of the Similarities: Longtime Capitol Hill Creatures. Experienced operators more than high-flying speakers. And unexpected presidents – and in stressful and turbulent times that doubled as rare openings of opportunity.
“It’s important to learn from what has worked and what has not worked in the past and gain perspectives from people who study it,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters earlier this week. “It is intended to have an open conversation,” she said of the meeting with historians, “about the challenges … our country stands before history and looks back on it.” And it’s a moment to step back and think about it and use it as a lesson for the future. “
In particular, Thursday’s 62-minute press conference in the eastern room of the White House took place in the same room as Biden’s meeting with more than half a dozen high-profile historians.
The reporters’ questions may predictably lean toward the present. Of the 10 Biden put together 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 Covid-19 (0). (“Do reporters miss the big picture and the historical nature of Biden’s agenda?” Asked Brian Stelter of CNN.) In any case, Biden answered the predominantly du jour questions practically tectonically and consistently did not conjure up as many cycles (news or elections) . than the broad patterns of centuries and generations.
“I think we should go back to a position on the filibuster that was there when I entered the United States Senate 120 years ago,” he replied to a question from PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, trying to joke his age close . (Biden was elected to the upper chamber from Delaware, not in 1901, but in 1972.)
It got grainy very quickly historically. “From 1917 to 1971 – there was the filibuster – there were a total of 58 requests to break a filibuster all the time. Last year alone there were five times as many. So it is being abused in a gigantic way, ”he said. “You used to have to sit there and talk and talk and talk and talk until you broke down. And guess what? People got tired of talking and collapsed. Filibusters have collapsed … “
He turned from historian to forecaster. “Look, I predict, your children or grandchildren will do their doctoral thesis on who was successful: autocracy or democracy? Because that’s what it’s all about – not just China. Look around. We are in the middle of a fourth industrial revolution of enormous consequence. Will there be a middle class? How will people adapt to these major changes in science, technology and the environment? How are you going to do that? And are democracies equipped? “He said in response to a question from Bloomberg’s Justin Sink.
“This,” said Biden, “is a struggle between the benefits of 21st century democracies and autocracies.”
And in response to another question about immigration, that of Univision’s Janet Rodriguez, Biden cited his own family’s genealogy and the desperation that drove America’s growth – with an anecdote that humanizes migrants while also justifying the asylum process that not everyone comes in 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” – of a generation, he was referring to his maternal great-great-grandfather, Owen Finnegan, a White House spokesman told me – the “expectation was, was he you will be up long enough live this ship to go to the United States? But they left because of what the British had done. They were in real, real trouble. They didn’t want to go. But they had no choice. “
“He has dealt with all of these topics, so of course he understands that not everything is fresh and everything has roots,” said Princeton historian Julian Zelizer, nodding to Biden’s 36 years in the Senate and two terms in the White House as Vice President. “I think it is a consolation for many Americans to see someone again, even if they are still nervous about the conditions we are under, even if they do not necessarily support them – but someone who makes sense of it. “
“Donald Trump could never think past a certain moment,” added Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson. “It’s very different.”
“The contrasts with Trump are of course omnipresent,” John Woolley, co-director of the American Presidency Project, told me in an email. “Part of this antagonism for him reminds us that he has a long view that is informed and not simple.”
Biden’s only deliberate departure from this long view was about the future, not the past. Under pressure from CNN’s Kaitlan Collins to run for re-election, Biden declined.
“I respect fate very much,” he said, repeating a phrase that he had uttered many times over the years. “I’ve never been able to plan … three and a half years in advance with certainty.”
He concluded his answers to Collins’ question with the use (three times) of a word, which in turn reminded of the time in a much more expansive manner. “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 in the air at the start of this presidency is unlikely at this point in the life of Biden, who is traditionally considered to be moderately difficult, practically aggressively progressive. For many of the historians and political analysts I have spoken to, at least for now, it is more a function of the moment than of the man. You suggest that these comparisons are, not least, premature. After all, Biden has been president for little more than two months. But that doesn’t mean these talks aren’t worth it.
On Thursday evening, about six hours after Biden’s press conference ended, I spoke to Jeffrey Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. We talked about the different chapters of the story, but also about its connective tissue.
The FDR was elected President in 1932. The LBJ was elected to Congress in 1937 and the Senate in 1948. He became president on November 22, 1963, of course, and held the office until January 1969. And not quite four years later, Biden was elected to the Senate.
“FDR took LBJ under his wing and played poker with him as a young Congressman. LBJ entered the Inner Circle as a young DC Congressman in his early years. FDR was his personal hero. And Biden is, if you will, at the end of the broad Johnson era, or at least the impact of Johnson’s policies, ”Engel said.
“Biden comes to the Senate at the age of 30 and obviously has so many tragedies right now,” he continued, referring to the car wreck that killed his wife and daughter and injured his two sons, every single person in the Senate wanted to look after him – and everyone had spent time with LBJ or FDR. “
It is this chronology, the beginning of the possibility of this epic, three-step line from depression to pandemic, that underscores how Angel Biden now sees and hears. “I hear it when he talks about the work moment. When Biden talks about work, you can close your eyes and imagine a new dealer, ”he said.
“Biden knows,” Engel concluded, “that there are only two or three moments in life that are really important to make a structural difference.” And he’s sitting in the middle of one. I’m not surprised that he’s considering a generation change. “