Is President Biden afflicted with the political equivalent of a split personality? His first several months in office suggest just that possibility. On the home front, the president’s inclination is clearly to Go Big. When it comes to America’s role in the world, however, Biden largely hews to pre-Trumpian precedent. So far at least, the administration’s overarching foreign-policy theme is Take It Slow.
“Joe Biden Is Electrifying America Like F.D.R.” So proclaimed the headline of a recent Nicholas Kristof column in The New York Times. Even allowing for a smidgen of hyperbole, the comparison is not without merit. Much like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his famous First Hundred Days in office in the midst of the Great Depression, Biden has launched a flurry of impressively ambitious domestic initiatives in the midst of the Great Pandemic—an American Rescue Plan, an American Jobs Plan, an American Families Plan, and most recently an environmental restoration program marketed as America the Beautiful.
Biden’s Build Back Better domestic campaign qualifies as a first cousin once removed of Roosevelt’s famed New Deal. To fix an ailing nation, FDR promoted unprecedented federal intervention in the economy combined with a willingness to spend lots of money. As then, so today, details and specifics took a back seat to action, vigorous and sustained, not sooner or later but right now.
Of course, FDR’s Hundred Days did not actually end the Great Depression, which lingered on for the remainder of the 1930s. From the outset, however, the New Deal captured imaginations, especially among progressives. It invested national politics with a sense of hope and excitement. As historians subsequently came to appreciate, the New Deal was also rife with internal contradictions. Nevertheless, in terms of both style and substance, Roosevelt became and remains the beau ideal of the activist president. As press depictions of Joe Biden as our latest FDR proliferate, one can easily imagine the president happily filling his scrapbook with newspaper clippings.
That said, any political leader who embarks on an aggressive domestic reform program has to prevent the outside world from getting in the way. Roosevelt largely succeeded in doing so through his first two terms. Activism at home did not translate into activism abroad. Eventually, however, the outbreak of war in Europe and in the Far East famously prompted FDR to retire “Dr. New Deal” and don the mantle of “Dr. Win-the-War.” In doing so, he was bowing to the inevitable. The New Deal was already running out of gas when the danger posed by a global struggle against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan brought it to a screeching halt. FDR wisely chose to accommodate himself to that reality.
In the ultimate irony, defeating those enemies made good on various unfulfilled New Deal aspirations, restoring both American prosperity and self-confidence. Yet war inevitably imposes its own priorities and creates its own legacies. World War II did so in spades. If postwar America bore the imprint of the New Deal, it also differed substantially from what New Dealers back in the 1930s had envisioned as the purpose of their enterprise.
Not least of all, during the ensuing Cold War, standing in immediate over-armed, over-funded readiness for the next war became a permanent priority. As a consequence, domestic matters took a backseat to a fundamentally militarized conception of what keeping Americans safe and guaranteeing their freedoms required. As the self-designated guardian of the “Free World,” the United States became a garrison state.
“That Bitch of a War”
A generation later, a reform-minded president fancying himself FDR’s rightful heir faced a variant of Roosevelt’s dilemma, but demonstrated far less skill in adapting to it.
In the mid-1960s, Lyndon Baines Johnson conceived of a domestic reform plan that would, he believed, out-do the New Deal. His vision of a Great Society would guarantee “abundance and liberty for all,” while ensuring “an end to poverty and racial injustice.” And that, Johnson insisted, would be “just the beginning”:
The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.
Here was a promise of nothing less than a federally designed and federally funded utopia. And for a brief moment, it even seemed plausible.
Winning the presidency in his own right in 1964—he had first gained it as vice-president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated—elevated LBJ to a position in American politics not unlike FDR’s 30 years earlier. Senator Barry Goldwater’s abysmal showing as the Republican presidential candidate that year left his party in disarray. Democrats enjoyed clear majorities in both houses of Congress. Assuming he could steer clear of complications related to the ongoing Cold War, the way seemed clear for LBJ to Go Big as a domestic reformer.
As it turned out, this was not to be. Within a year of unveiling his Great Society, Johnson made a fateful decision to escalate U.S. military involvement in an ongoing war in Vietnam. In effect, LBJ laid down a huge bet, calculating that Going Big on the home front would prove compatible with fighting a major war in Southeast Asia. He wagered that “Dr. Great Society” could simultaneously serve as “Dr. Win-the-War,” so long as that war remained manageable.
Over the course of several agonizing years, Johnson discovered that the two roles were incompatible. The conflict he came to call “that bitch of a war” doomed his Great Society, destroyed his presidency, and left a legacy of bitterness and division from which the nation has yet to fully recover. Rather than ranking alongside his hero FDR, Johnson ended up being roundly despised by conservatives and liberals alike, by those who had served in Vietnam and those who had opposed the war. In the estimation of many, “Dr. Great Society” ended up as “Dr. Callous and Cruel.”
Recall, however, that Johnson chose to go to war in Vietnam, even while persuading himself that politically he had little choice but to do so. The trivial Tonkin Gulf Incident of August 1964 did not even faintly replay Pearl Harbor, yet LBJ pretended otherwise. His misguided decision to use that pseudo-event as a pretext for armed intervention stemmed from a wildly ill-advised reading of contemporary politics. An ostensibly savvy pol, Johnson backed himself into a corner from which he could find no escape.
The imperatives of the Cold War seemingly dictated that, if the United States allowed Vietnam to “go Communist,” the sitting commander-in-chief and his party would incur unacceptable political damage. In Washington and across much of the country, the prevailing mood demanded toughness in confronting the red threat. Better to fight them in the jungles of Indochina than in the suburbs of San Francisco—so went the thinking at the time.
That a conflict between two recently minted Southeast Asian nations, neither of them democratic but each claiming to represent the Vietnamese people, could determine the fate of the entire Free World will strike most readers today (schooled by more recent debacles like the invasion and occupation of Iraq) as preposterous. In the mid-1960s, however, Lyndon Johnson judged the risks of saying so out loud too great for him to chance. So he sent hundreds of thousands of GIs off to fight an unwinnable war and put the torch to his own presidency.
Will Joe Biden Be Dr. Build Back Better?
To most Americans today the Vietnam War has become a distant memory. Let me suggest that its lessons remain notably relevant to our reform-minded administration of the present moment.
Johnson’s mistake was to defer to an entrenched but deeply defective national security paradigm when the success of his domestic reforms demanded that he reject it. President Biden should take heed. To preserve his status as the latest reincarnation of FDR, Biden will have to avoid the errors in judgment that consigned LBJ’s Great Society to history’s junk heap.
On the foreign-policy front, the Biden team can already claim some modest, if tentative achievements. President Biden has indeed preserved the New Start nuclear agreement with Russia. Unlike his predecessor, he acknowledges that climate change is an urgent threat requiring concerted action. He has signaled his interest in salvaging the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. Perhaps most notably, he has ordered the complete withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, ending the longest war in American history. Implicit in that decision is the possibility of further reductions in the US military footprint across the Greater Middle East and much of Africa, all undertaken pursuant to a misguided post-9/11 Global War on Terror.
That said, so far President Biden has left essentially untouched the core assumptions that justify the vast (and vastly well funded) national security apparatus created in the wake of World War II. Central to those assumptions is the conviction that global power projection, rather than national defense per se, defines the US military establishment’s core mission. Washington’s insistence on asserting global primacy (typically expressed using euphemisms like “global leadership”) finds concrete expression in a determination to remain militarily dominant everywhere.
So far at least, Biden shows no inclination to renounce, or even reassess, the practices that have evolved to pursue such global military dominion. These include Pentagon expenditures easily exceeding those of any adversary or even plausible combination of adversaries; an arms industry that corrupts American politics and openly subverts democracy; a massive, essentially unusable nuclear strike force presently undergoing a comprehensive $1.7 trillion “modernization”; a network of hundreds of bases hosting US troop contingents in dozens of countries around the world; and, of course, an inclination to use force unmatched by any nation with the possible exception of Israel.
Military leaders like to say that the armed services exist to “fight and win the nation’s wars,” a misleading claim on two counts. First, based on the results achieved since 9/11, they rarely win. Second, their actual purpose is to satisfy various bureaucratic and corporate interests, not to mention ideological fantasies, all captured in the awkward but substantively accurate phrase military-industrial-congressional-think-tank complex.
Put simply, ours is a nation in which various powerful and influential institutions are deeply invested in war. If President Biden genuinely aspires to be “Dr. Build Back Better,” he would do well to contemplate the implications of that fact, lest he willy-nilly find himself sharing LBJ’s sad fate.
In Washington and various quarters of the commentariat, an eagerness to get tough with China and/or Russia and/or Iran—a veritable Axis of Evil!—is palpable. Biden ignores these tendencies at his peril. Indeed, if genuinely committed to prioritizing domestic reforms, he should actively resist those intent on diverting him onto a path pointing to military confrontation.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, says that his boss has “tasked us with reimagining our national security.” Of course, reimagining presumes a high level of creativity along with an ability to cast aside obsolete habits of mind. Whether Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Pentagon chief Gen. Lloyd Austin, or Biden himself possesses the requisite level of imagination remains, at best, an open question. Little in their collective backgrounds suggests that they do. In the meantime, somewhere out there in the South China Sea, the Donbas region of Ukraine, or the Persian Gulf, some variant of a Tonkin Gulf event lurks, ready to sink the administration’s domestic agenda.
If Biden wants to be “Dr. Build Back Better,” he should assume the additional role of “Dr. Curb the War Habit.” That means rejecting once and for all the illusions of military dominion to which too many in Washington still pay tribute, whether cynically or out of misguided conviction. Doing so will require not only imagination but gumption. Still, if President Biden intends to Go Big at home, he will need to Go Big in changing US policies abroad as well.