Morbid Symptoms / November 9, 2023

Biden Is Tearing His Own Coalition Apart

He’s trying to have both guns and butter. But you can’t revive liberalism by tying domestic renewal to militarism.

Jeet Heer
US President Joe Biden walks across the South Lawn of the White House. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty)

Joe Biden’s most ardent advocates often exalt him as a president worthy of joining the pantheon of mid-20th-century US liberalism, the muscular political philosophy that oversaw the creation of the welfare state and America’s rise to global hegemony. In August 2022, then–White House chief of staff Ronald Klain boasted that Biden “has delivered the largest economic recovery plan since Franklin D. Roosevelt, the largest infrastructure plan since Dwight D. Eisenhower, the most judges confirmed since John F. Kennedy, the second-largest healthcare bill since [Lyndon B.] Johnson, and the largest climate change bill in history.” Writing in the Financial Times this past January, Gideon Rachman compared Biden to Johnson and Harry Truman, two fellow former vice presidents who, although unfairly overshadowed by charismatic, Harvard-educated predecessors, “went on to be great presidents in their own right.”

The claim that Biden is bringing robust liberalism back to life raises a question that is obvious but usually unasked: If New Deal and Cold War liberalism are worth reviving, why did they weaken in the first place? Here the frequent comparisons of Biden to Johnson take on an ominous significance, for LBJ was the president who brought Cold War liberalism to both its apogee and its moment of hubristic overreach. By simultaneously pushing for a massive expansion of the welfare state and an escalation of the Vietnam War, Johnson drove American politics to the breaking point, shattering a once-dominant coalition and provoking decades of backlash.

In 1966, Wilbur Mills, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, warned, “The administration simply must choose between guns and butter.” For Johnson, who sought to emulate FDR’s ability to be both Dr. New Deal and Dr. Win the War, this was a false dilemma.

One crucial mistake that LBJ made was conflating Roosevelt’s Popular Front coalition against fascism with Cold War liberalism. The center of gravity of FDR’s synthesis of social security and national security was well to the left of Cold War liberalism. Leftists were an integral part of the Popular Front, and the extreme right was marginalized. Cold War liberalism, by contrast, marginalized the left and empowered the extreme right: Joseph McCarthy thrived thanks to the hysteria fomented by Truman’s loyalty oaths and J. Edgar Hoover’s surveillance state.

Roosevelt’s policies also developed sequentially over the course of more than three presidential terms, with the stimulus of both the New Deal and military spending needed to juice up an economy that had been laid flat by the Great Depression. Johnson, on the other hand, governed a much richer America already near full employment, which meant that the double dose of welfare state and warfare state would lead to inflation and deficit spending.

Believing he could have both guns and butter was a delusion, but an attractive one for Johnson, allowing him to unify a political party that included Southern conservatives (who were adamant anti-communists) and Northern liberals (who wanted a larger welfare state).

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As the historian Irving Bernstein noted in his 1996 study Guns or Butter, Johnson’s desire to have both sabotaged his domestic agenda. Under the threat of inflation, a Congress dominated by Southern Democrats and their Republican allies forced him to underfund the Great Society, setting the stage for the austerity politics of the coming decades.

Joe Biden hasn’t gotten America into a land war in Asia yet, but in every other way he is repeating LBJ’s mistake of thinking guns and butter go together. Through his infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden has admirably returned big-ticket social spending to the White House agenda. But he has been equally concerned to reassert American hegemony, financing the war in Ukraine, promising more money to Israel as it carries out its bombing of Gaza, and pivoting toward a great-power competition with China that could easily become a new cold war.

Like the Cold War liberals, Biden has embraced a military Keynesianism that sees guns and butter as mutually self-supporting. In late October, Politico reported, “The White House has been quietly urging lawmakers in both parties to sell the war efforts abroad as a potential economic boom at home. Aides have been distributing talking points to Democrats and Republicans who have been supportive of continued efforts to fund Ukraine’s resistance to make the case that doing so is good for American jobs.”

National security adviser Jake Sullivan has been a major advocate of this new military Keynesianism. In an important October essay in Foreign Affairs (which proved embarrassing because it boasted of the calmness of the Middle East under Biden’s watch), Sullivan made a nationalist geopolitical argument for more infrastructure spending and for an industrial policy aimed at rebuilding America’s manufacturing base. In 2019, Sullivan had cowritten an article hoping for a new “Sputnik moment” that would jump-start government investment in tech and science.

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This new guns-and-butter program might seem politically savvy. Biden presides over an usually large coalition that includes both social democrats like Bernie Sanders and Never Trump Republicans.

But, like LBJ before him, Biden will find that a guns-and-butter consensus is brittle and satisfies no one. Endless war isn’t popular. Voters are already souring on the idea of sending more aid to Ukraine, and polls show majority support for a cease-fire in Gaza. In a full-employment economy, more money for guns means less money for butter. Policies like the Green New Deal can be won on their own merits, not through too-clever appeals to nationalism. And in any case, an increasingly MAGA Republican Party shows little enthusiasm for spending more money to fight foreign foes.

By trying to hammer out a guns-and-butter consensus that very few outside the elite support, Biden is tearing apart both his own coalition and American society.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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