Joe Biden wanted to go big like FDR but some moderates worry that's backfiring on Democrats

WASHINGTON – Is it time for President Joe Biden to take down the massive portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that hangs in the Oval Office?

Last week’s alarm-raising, off-year election results and Biden’s flagging poll numbers have Democrats debating whether the president should still go big or if it’s time to pull back.

“I don’t intend to be anybody but Joe Biden,” the president said Saturday when asked about comparisons with FDR. “That’s who I am. And what I’m trying to do is do the things that I ran on to do.”

But moderates and progressives in the Democratic party are divided on what message voters were sending Biden when they elected him in 2020 and on what approach will best position the party for the midterm elections in 2022.

During the Democratic primary in 2020, Biden campaigned as a center-left candidate, emphasizing his ability to reach across the aisle and build consensus.

After capturing the nomination, Biden moved to consolidate support from progressives, embracing major proposals to combat climate change, expand health care and more.

Quentin James, founder of Collective PAC, which focuses on electing Black candidates, said that many people who turned out to vote for Biden did so because they wanted to see bold legislation passed.

“I do think they voted for real change,” James said. “Not just anti-Trump, but like, we want to see government work for us again.”

Biden has also proven he could rally a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers around part of his agenda. He’s expected to sign into law soon legislation that would steer a huge amount of money toward broadband, road and bridge repair and other upgrades to the nation’s tread-worn infrastructure.

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The infrastructure bill passed with the support of 19 Republicans in the Senate and 13 in the House, the latter needed to offset the defections of six progressive House Democrats concerned that a bigger package of social spending and climate change measures would be scuttled by more moderate Democrats unless the bills were linked together.

Democrats’ loss of Virginia’s governor race and the surprisingly close reelection of New Jersey’s Democratic governor added to pressure on the party to come together, potentially helping to get the infrastructure bill across the finish line.

But Democrats haven’t agreed on the strategy Biden should pursue for helping to stave off losses in the 2022 congressional elections.

"Nobody elected him to be FDR, they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos," Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger, one of the moderate Democrats facing a tough re-election, told the New York Times last week.

When Virginians went to the polls Nov. 2, Republicans made up ground in the suburbs they had lost under former President Donald Trump and Democrats fell even further behind in heavily white and more rural areas.

But progressive leaders like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said Democrats can’t let up on the legislative gas pedal until passing the social spending and climate change package that Biden has dubbed “Build Back Better.”

“BBB contains the majority of the president’s agenda,” Ocasio-Cortez, one of the six Democrats who voted against the infrastructure package, tweeted Sunday. “We must keep going and ensure the promises are delivered.”

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Sarah Longwell, a political strategist who has conducted nearly 50 focus groups of voters this year, said the main message people have been taking away from the headlines is Democrats are fighting amongst themselves – and what they’re fighting over is very expensive.

When Democrats do pass legislation – both the infrastructure package and the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package approved in March – voters have no idea what’s in it or how it benefits them.

“Right now, these bills – for voters – are a price tag,” she said.

Her advice for Biden is to prioritize small wins over big swings.

“If there’s too much, it all becomes muddled,” she said. “It can’t be a check list.”

But Scott Wallace, the grandson of one of FDR’s vice presidents, said Biden can’t divide up his Build Back Better agenda into more bite-sized pieces. To avoid a GOP filibuster, Democrats have to use a legislative procedure that limits the number of bites at the apple.

And if Democrats don’t pass components like climate change and other issues that are a top priority for grassroots activists, the party’s base won’t be enthusiastic about turning out to vote next year, he said.

“The political caution is probably higher than it was a week ago,” Wallace said. “But I think Biden really has no choice.”

FDR’s grandson, James Roosevelt, who has been urging Biden to pass a “21st Century New Deal,” said public support for new presidents often drops because people expect instant results.

At a recent gathering of the descendants of the men and women who designed and implemented Roosevelt’s agenda, one of the takeaways was that any time a New Deal program got sidetracked, Democrats would come back with a bigger and better program.

“That’s what Joe Biden needs to do,” Roosevelt said.

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Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for the social policy and politics program at Third Way, a public policy think tank, said Democrats should continue to focus on the fight against COVID-19 and boosting the economy.

Erickson supports moving forward with the social spending and climate change package because she believe its components will prove popular and could help the Democratic brand. But she agreed with Spanberger that voters want a return to normalcy.

“What people voted for in Joe Biden was a return to getting back to normal and not having to think about politics all the time,” Erickson said. “The more we can move towards that the better.”

James, the founder of Collective PAC, said Biden was taking the brunt of the blame for Congress not being able to come together to pass his key bills.

“I don't think it's biting off more than he can chew,” James said. “It was unexpected that a Democratic majority right in the Senate and House couldn't come together to move this stuff forward. I think that is the real challenge here.”

David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University Political Research Center, said the social spending and climate bill is "where the rubber will hit the road” for the party.

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Moderate Democrats have to worry both about primary challenges from the left and being targeted in the general election by Republicans who feel the wind at their back, Paleologos said.

Americans overwhelmingly support the infrastructure bill Biden is about to sign, but are split on the more expensive and further-reaching "Build Back Better" package, according to a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll taken last week.

If the midterm elections were held today, respondents said they would vote for their Republican congressional candidate over the Democratic one by 46%-38%.

The survey clocked Biden’s approval rating at a dismal 38%.

Biden, who did not shy away from FDR comparisons in the early months of his presidency, asserted he’s his own man when asked by a reporter Saturday about Spanberger’s comment.

He also said he understands that people are concerned about rising prices, stuck supply lines and the ongoing pandemic.

That keeps his focus, the president said, on how to get the country back to “a degree of normality” and “move to a different place.”

On Monday, Biden again emphasized he’s not giving up on his bigger vision.

“It’s going to be a tough fight,” Biden said of the Build Back Better package. “It ain’t over yet, as the old expression goes. But I feel good, and I think people are beginning to realize it’s important to get it done.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden wanted to go big like FDR. Is it backfiring on Democrats?

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