Was FDR corrupt

German Trade Union Confederation

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt was not a revolutionary. He was a problem solver. His job was to save American capitalism. The New Deal was achieved not thanks to Roosevelt's heroism, but because it won the trust of the people. This is now Joe Biden's job.

By Ian Buruma

An old and decent veteran like Biden, who knows exactly how the political system works in Washington, could be exactly the head of government and state that the United States needs now. DGB / jlhervàs / Flickr

It's easy to underestimate Joe Biden. The new US president has been dismissed by some on the left as a party soldier, reversible neck, and remnant of a corrupt, broken establishment. An article in the conservative National Review was entitled "Joe Biden: Mediocrity Personified". It was written by the right-wing admirer of "great men" Conrad Black, a former newspaper publisher and a convicted fraudster.

Biden is neither a brilliant thinker nor a heroic leader

Biden is - so far - not a "great man". But someone who was in the snake pit of Washington politics for four decades and who was elected president at the age of 78 cannot easily be dismissed. At least he's an extremely skilled politician.

Biden is neither a brilliant thinker nor a heroic leader. He's not particularly charismatic either - which is refreshing after four years of spectacular mismanagement under Donald Trump. If Biden ever had an original idea, he cleverly hid it. When he ran for the presidency in 1988, he even copied a passage from a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock. But at least Biden didn't blame his speechwriter for this, as Trump and his wife Melania did after similar failures.

The question is whether liberal democracies with brilliant or heroic leaders are so well served. Such figures may seem particularly desirable in difficult times. But as the American writer Gore Vidal once said: “Great leaders wage great wars.” Intellectuals with great ideas can also be grossly wrong. Many cannot handle the criticism of those who disagree. In fact, they have little patience at all with people who seem mentally inferior to them. But successful politicians must be able to tolerate fools. It's part of their job.

Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935, which has been amended and expanded several times to this day. The US social security system is based on it. DGB / Library of Congress / Public domain

People with a propensity for revolution often despise liberal democracy for its supposed mediocrity. The late French lawyer Jacques Vergès, who defended left-wing terrorists, once summed up this attitude as follows: "Ever since I was a child, I was drawn to something greater ... the idea of ​​fate and not happiness. Happiness has become more glamorous in Europe thanks to social democracy lost."

Biden will have a harder time than Roosevelt in the face of the polarized USA

You can understand what he means by that. There is something mediocre about happiness when it is the opposite of what the Romantics called Sturm und Drang. But the "pursuit of happiness" is in America's DNA; Thomas Jefferson wrote it down in the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps that is why so many left and right revolutionaries loathe the US.

Of course, there are times when even democracies need heroes. Neville Chamberlain, a not overly imaginative mainstream conservative and man of compromise, was not the kind of head of government his country needed in the face of Adolf Hitler's 1940. In peacetime Chamberlain was an effective prime minister, while Winston Churchill was seen as an unreliable busybody. But in May 1940, when Britain was ill-prepared for war with Nazi Germany, the country needed a passionate romantic like Churchill to inspire the people with his heroic spirit.

Such times, however, are rare. Unfortunately, too many post-war US presidents chose to emulate Churchill over Chamberlain, which at times led to foolish wars. The pursuit of happiness is seldom well served by those who seek wartime glory and national splendor. A head of government like Biden serves him much better.

But we may be going through one of those rare moments when heroism and big ideas are necessary. As Biden said in his inaugural address, we face several dangers: a pandemic, a severe economic crisis and a general lack of trust in democratic institutions. Then there is the steep rise of right-wing populist demagogues on several continents. And a significant proportion of the US population, in the face of a barrage of malicious propaganda, believes that Biden "stole" the election.

The social situation in the USA has not only been very difficult since the Covid-19 pandemic. President Biden was one of his first actions to improve the provision of meal vouchers to the poor. DGB / Department of Agriculture / Public domain

The newly-appointed president is sometimes hopefully compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many of his supporters believe - and rightly so, in my view - that it is time for a revised New Deal and substantial political reform. Too much money is concentrated in too few hands. And too much has been ruined in the past four years - not least the idea that there is such a thing as truth - to imagine that the US could simply revert to the status quo ante.

In a way, Biden's job is getting harder than Roosevelt's. While the economic crisis was worse in the 1930s, Roosevelt had large majorities in Congress and the Republicans were not part of a dangerous cult. The New Deal was a great achievement. Yet despite his quasi-aristocratic demeanor, Roosevelt was not a brilliant or heroic man. Like Biden, he was a skilled political puller.

Biden needs to restore confidence in the political system

And like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly not a revolutionary. His job was to save American capitalism. He was a repeater, a problem solver. The New Deal was achieved not thanks to Roosevelt's genius or heroism, but because enough people believed it were acting in good faith.

This is exactly what people expect from Biden. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do this, he must restore confidence in the system. He has promised to do something against the polarization in the country and to restore decency and truth within the political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma could prove to be one of his greatest strengths. He makes up for his lack of glamor and glory with the sense of propriety he conveys.

Will that be enough to bring about the necessary political changes? Of course, that doesn't depend on him alone. All of his major initiatives could be petered out in republican obstructionism. But he is more likely to be successful than more colorful, more radical politicians. An old hand like Biden, who knows how the system works - the compromises, the pat on the back, the thumbscrews, and tolerance to fools - could be exactly the head of government the US needs now.

At least we should hope so. When Biden moved into the Oval Office, he immediately had the Churchill bust that Trump had placed in such a prominent place behind his desk removed. This is not a bad start.


Translated from the English by Jan Doolan / © Project Syndicate, 2021