On Thursday, at his highly anticipated, highly anticipated first press conference as president, Joe Biden sought to navigate not the cramps of news cycles, but the sweeping arches of history, feeding everything from economic dislocation to the rebellious actions of Congress to the current wave of migrants at the Mexican border in the broader context of presidential and even pioneering ebb and flow.
So this week, so early in his tenure at Oval Office, didn’t just mark another stark contrast to his predecessor – Donald Trump, who twists and rejects just as much history. With 78-year-old Biden, who is satirized by some of the noisiest voices on the right, especially after a stumbling block on the stairs to Air Force One, he is actually leaning in a projection of a wisdom acquired over the centuries to to express a longer view of history. That perspective, he hopes, will imbue his ambitious agenda with an energy that could (if successful) place him in a category of presidents with dizzying consequences.
It was true from the start on Thursday, when Zeke Miller of the Associated Press asked about immigration reform, gun control, the right to vote and climate change.
“Long-term problems,” said Biden in his response. “They’ve been around for a long time.”
This in itself could have sounded like an escape. Biden tried to indicate otherwise. He introduced himself as the person who was “hired” to gain his long-term experience and try to solve persistent problems.
“The oldest has the perspective of history,” said Russell Riley, the co-chair of the presidential oral history program at the University of Virginia.
“The challenges he faces are daunting, and big challenges are great moments for ambitious presidents, and I think he is visionary enough to seize the moment,” said presidential historian Mark Updegrove. “At the same time, it seems so abnormal given what we’ve been through over the past four years, which in many ways felt like eight or a dozen because of the speed of the news cycles and all the chaos and chaos of events surrounding the Trump administration. “
Trump was and is, of course, the antithesis of a history student. He had not and had not read (and said he did) biographies of presidents, even as he aspired to become one. “I don’t have much time,” he explained. “I’ve never.” During his four years in office, he propagated and gave (at best) easy interpretations of America’s past. The main way Trump worked even in presidential annals was the recurring and self-aggrandizing way in which he compared himself to Abraham Lincoln.
Biden, on the other hand, recently sat down with prominent historians to tap into their expertise. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and his New Deal) and Lyndon Baines Johnson (Great Society) could be the best similarities to the Biden era over the last 100 years “in terms of transforming the country in significant ways in a short time,” Michael Beschloss, one attendee, said Mike Allen of Axios.
Of FDR and LBJ, perhaps the most compelling comparison is the last, based on conversations I have recently had with presidential historians. Some of the similarities: Ancient creatures from Capitol Hill. Seasoned operators are more than flying orators. And unexpected presidents – and in difficult and tumultuous times that doubled as rare opportunities.
“It’s important to learn from what worked and what didn’t work in the past and to get perspective from people who study that,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters earlier this week. “It’s meant to have an open conversation,” she said of meeting historians, “about the challenges … facing our country and looking back to history. And it’s a time to take a step. take it back and think and use it as lessons to move forward. “
Notably, Thursday’s 62-minute press conference in the East Room of the White House took place in the same room as Biden’s sit-down with the more than six high-profile historians.
Reporters’ questions may have been predictable towards the present. Of the 10 Biden appealed to, as compiled 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 about Covid-19 (0). (“Are reporters missing the big picture and historical nature of Biden’s agenda?” Asked CNN’s Brian Stelter.) In any case, Biden answered the predominantly du-jour questions in practically tectonic terms, consistently not triggering as many cycles ( news or elections) as the vast patterns of centuries and generations.
“I think we should go back to a position on the filibuster that existed just when I came to the United States Senate 120 years ago,” he said in response to a question from PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, in a joke attempt. to worry about his age. . (Biden, for the record, was elected to the top chamber from Delaware not in 1901 but in 1972.)
It became historically detailed very quickly. “From 1917 to 1971 – the filibuster existed – there were a total of 58 motions all along to break a filibuster. Last year alone, there were five times as many. So it’s being misused in a massive way, ”he said. ‘You used to have to sit there and talk and talk and talk and talk until you collapsed. Guess what? People got tired of talking and tired of collapsing. Filibusters broke … “
He changed from historian to prognosticator. “Look, I predict that your children or grandchildren will write their doctoral thesis on the question of who passed: autocracy or democracy? Because that’s what’s at stake – not just with China. Look around the world. We are in the middle of a fourth industrial revolution with enormous consequences. Will there be a middle class? How will people adapt to these important changes in science and technology and the environment? How are they going to do that? And are democracies equipped? he said in response to a question from Justin Sink of Bloomberg.
“This,” said Biden, “is a battle between the usefulness of 21st century democracies and autocracies.”
And in answer to another question about immigration, this one from Janet Rodriguez of Univision, Biden quoted his own family’s genealogy and the desperation that fueled America’s growth – with an anecdote that humanizes migrants and justifies the asylum process while at the same time saying that not everyone comes in and not everyone can stay, even if they want or deserve to.
“People don’t want to leave their homes,” he said. “When my great-grandfather got on a coffin ship in the Irish Sea” – for a generation, he referred to his maternal great-great-grandfather Owen Finnegan, a White House spokesman told me – the “expectation was: Was he on that ship long enough? to go to the United States of America? But they left because of what the British had done. They were in real, real trouble. They didn’t want to leave. But they had no choice. “
“He’s kind of covered all these issues, so of course he understands that everything isn’t 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 some comfort for many Americans to be able to see someone again, even though they are still nervous about the circumstances we find ourselves in, even if they don’t necessarily support him – but someone who does have a feeling for it.”
“Donald Trump could never think beyond a certain moment,” added Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson. “It’s very different.”
“The contrasts with Trump are, of course, ubiquitous,” John Woolley, co-director of the American Presidency Project, told me in an email. “Part of that contrast for him is a reminder that he has a long, informed and not simplistic vision.”
Biden’s only clear departure from that long-term view was not the past but the future. Under pressure from CNN’s Kaitlan Collins over whether he will run for re-election, Biden objected.
“I have great respect for destiny,” he said, repeating a phrase he has said many times over the course of many years. “I have never been able to plan with certainty … three and a half years ahead.”
He concluded his answers to Collins’ line of questions with the use (three times) of a word that again evoked time in a much broader way. “I want to change the paradigm,” he said. ‘I want to change the paradigm. We start to reward work, not just wealth. I want to change the paradigm. “
The fact that FDR and LBJ are on the air here at the beginning of this presidency is an unlikely turn at this stage in Biden’s life, who has traditionally been thought of as more middle-of-the-road, practically more than aggressively progressive. For many historians and political analysts I have spoken to, it is, at least for now, more a function of the moment than of the man. In any case, these comparisons are premature, they suggest. After all, Biden has been president for barely two months. But that doesn’t mean these conversations aren’t worthy.
Thursday night, about six hours after Biden’s press conference ended, I called Jeffrey Engel, founder and director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. We talked about the different chapters in history, but also about their connective tissue.
The FDR was elected president in 1932. LBJ was elected to Congress in 1937 and to the Senate in 1948, and of course President on November 22, 1963, and held office until January 1969. Not quite four years later, Biden was elected to the Senate.
“FDR took LBJ under his wing and played poker with him when he was a young congressman. LBJ came into the inner circle within his first few years as a young congressman in DC FDR was his personal hero. And Biden is there at the end, if you will, of the broad Johnson era, or at least the effect of Johnson’s policies, ”said Engel.
“Biden is coming to the Senate at the age of 30, and clearly there is so much tragedy going on at the time as well,” he continued, referring to the car wreck that killed his wife and daughter and injured his two sons. and everyone in the Senate wanted to accompany him – and they had all spent time with LBJ or FDR. ”
It is this chronology, the dawning of the possibility of this epic, three-step line from the depression to the pandemic, that underscores how Engel Biden now sees and listens to it. “I hear it when he talks about the moment of delivery. When Biden talks about labor, 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 really matter to make a structural difference. And he’s right in the middle of it. I’m not surprised he thinks about generational change. “