Democratic US Representative Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia centrist who swept into office on an anti–Donald Trump wave in 2018 and who now fears she might be swept out on an anti–Joe Biden wave in 2022, says Democrats are in trouble because President Biden has been too ambitious.
“Nobody elected him to be FDR, they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos,” said Spanberger in a much-quoted interview following the 2021 off-year elections that saw her party go down to defeat in Virginia and suffer serious setbacks elsewhere.
Spanberger’s view caught traction with the pundit class that sees itself as duty-bound to police the Democratic Party, with an eye toward avoiding even the slightest turn to the left. Quoting from the Virginian’s argument that Americans didn’t choose Biden to usher in a new New Deal, CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday asked Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), “So are you misreading what Americans wanted out of this president, out of the Democratic Congress that is now in control?”
Warner, who has supported the president’s now-passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and the still up-for-grabs $1.8 trillion social welfare plan, pushed back gently. Suggesting that it would make all the difference for the key components of Biden’s agenda to be approved, he said, “I think you’ll see the president’s numbers dramatically improve.”
That was a credible response. Here’s a better one: Spanberger is wrong.
So wrong that if Biden and congressional Democrats follow her counsel, they will doom the party to suffer losses every bit as devastating as the midterm defeats that disempowered Bill Clinton in 1994 and Barack Obama in 2010.
What Spanberger and centrists like her refuse to recognize is that the voters decided in 2020 that they a needed an FDR, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, to address the coronavirus pandemic and the economic instability that extended from it. The election results that gave Biden the presidency and Democrats control of the Congress were not just a cry of pain. They were a call to action that was rooted in an understanding that systemic changes were needed to respond to an immediate crisis and to the underlying economic, social, and racial injustices that made that crisis worse than it needed to be. “Build Back Better” wasn’t just a slogan; it was a vision for getting at the root of problems with policies that mirrored the transformational energy of the original New Deal.
Biden made his embrace of that vision central to his appeal to voters in 2020. Spanberger seems to have forgotten that just days before the election the Democratic challenger to President Trump traveled to Warm Springs, Ga., where Roosevelt died in 1945, to deliver a speech that explicitly linked his candidacy with that of the 32nd president.
Biden told the crowd on October 27, 2020: “The story is told that when Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s procession went by, a man collapsed in grief. The neighbor asked him, ‘Did you know the president?’ The response was ‘No.’ The man said, ‘But he knew me.’ He knew me. Few words better describe the kind of president our nation needs right now. A president who is not in it for himself, but for others. A President who doesn’t divide us, but unites us. A president who appeals not to the worst in us, but to the best. A president who cares less about his TV ratings and more about the American people. A president who looks not to settle scores, but to find solutions. A president guided not by wishful thinking, but by science, reason, and fact. That’s the kind of president I hope to be.”
Then Biden spelled things out in specific terms, offering a vision of an activist presidency that would build upon and extend from Roosevelt’s New Deal: “There’s nothing, nothing the American people can’t do and been unable to do if we put our minds to it. When news of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death went out on the wires, an editor in Chicago turned to his colleague and said, ‘Clear the decks for action.’ So I say to you today, if you’re giving me the honor of serving as your President, clear the decks for action. For we will act, we will act on the first day of my presidency to get Covid under control. We’ll act to pass my economic plan that will finally reward work, not wealth in this country. We’ll act to pass my healthcare plan to provide affordable, accessible health care for every American, and drug prices that are dramatically lowered. We’ll act to pass the Biden climate plan, meeting the challenges of a climate crisis while creating millions of good paying, high paying, labor jobs. We’ll act to address systemic racism in our country, and we’ll act to give working people a fair shot again in this country. And we’ll act to restore our faith in democracy and our faith in one another.”
That was a boldly progressive message, not a centrist appeal for concession and compromise. It helped Biden win the election by 7 million votes. He acknowledged the debt to FDR when he assumed the presidency on January 20, taking his place in an Oval Office where the pictures on the wall had been arranged to highlight a huge portrait of FDR.
And in his inaugural address, Biden committed his presidency to transformational change. He fought for the American Rescue Plan, outlined a comprehensive physical infrastructure plan, and then worked with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and progressives to formulate a $3.5 trillion plan to extend Medicare and Medicaid, and to make long-overdue investments in caregiving, education, anti-poverty initiatives, and clean-energy mandates.
Unfortunately, Democrats such as West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema—and sometimes Spanberger—have resisted robust and meaningful action. That’s made it harder for Biden to deliver on the promises he was elected to keep.
That resistance is the problem Democrats face at this point—and it’s a serious one. It is standing in the way of Biden’s delivering on the campaign promises that got him elected, and it is preventing Democrats from giving the people what they want.
A Morning Consult/Politico poll released in early November found that wide majorities of voters support “expanding Medicare coverage to cover hearing services” (78 percent); “funding for affordable housing” (66 percent); “funding for child care and universal pre-kindergarten” (61 percent); “extending the child tax credit for one year” (53 percent); and “a 15% corporate minimum tax rate for large corporations” (59 percent). And an Invest in America/Data for Progress poll released at the same time found that “with a +29-point margin, likely voters support the Build Back Better plan.”
Americans elected Biden and the Democrats to govern boldly, in the New Deal spirit Biden embraced during the 2020 campaign. They still want that to happen. Indeed, if there is frustration with the president and his party, and if that frustration is expressed at election time via depressed turnout and disappointing results, it is not because Biden is trying to be FDR. It is because he has not, as yet, been sufficiently successful in delivering on that promise.