Joe Biden Can’t Stop Talking About History

Joe Biden Can’t Stop Talking About HistoryMarch 27, 2021

He talked about the “coffin ship in the Irish Sea” in which his great-great-grandfather came to this country in the 1800s.

He talked about the filibuster in part by offering up dusty pieces of his personal past.

And he talked about “a Fourth Industrial Revolution,” inviting thoughts of the first three and of their scope and scale.

On Thursday, in his long-awaited, much-anticipated initial press conference as president, Joe Biden attempted to traffic not in the twitches of news cycles but in the sweeping arcs of history, inserting everything from economic dislocation to the recalcitrant actions of Congress to the current surge of migrants at the Mexican border into the broader context of presidential and even epochal ebbs and flows.

This week, so early in his Oval Office tenure, thus marked not simply another stark contrast with his predecessor—Donald Trump, equal parts history-twisting and -averse. With Biden, 78, being lampooned as decrepit by some of the noisiest voices on the right in particular following a stumble on the stairs to Air Force One, he’s actually leaning into a projection of an age-acquired wisdom to express a longer view of history. That perspective, he hopes, will imbue his ambitious agenda with an energy that could place him (if he’s successful) in a category of presidents of staggering consequence.

It was true from the start on Thursday, when Zeke Miller of the Associated Press asked about immigration reform, gun control, voting rights and climate change.

“Long-term problems,” Biden said in his response. “They’ve been around a long time.”

This on its own could’ve sounded like a cop-out. Biden endeavored to signal the opposite. He put forth himself as the person who was “hired” to summon his prolonged experience to try to solve intractable problems.

“The elder has the perspective of history,” Russell Riley, the co-chair of the presidential oral history program at the University of Virginia, told me.

“The challenges that he faces are daunting, and big challenges make big moments for ambitious presidents, and I think he is visionary enough to seize the moment,” presidential historian Mark Updegrove said. “At the same time, it seems so anomalous given what we have experienced for four years, which in many ways felt like eight or 12 because of the rapidity of the news cycles and all of the chaos and churning of events around the Trump administration.”

Trump, of course, was and is the antithesis of a student of history. He hadn’t and didn’t read biographies of presidents (and said so) even as he sought to become one. “I don’t have much time,” he explained. “I never have.” During his four years in office, he propagated and commissioned (at best) facile interpretations of America’s past. The main way Trump even dabbled in presidential annals was the recurrent and self-glorifying manner in which he likened himself to Abraham Lincoln.

Biden, on the other hand, sat down recently with prominent historians to tap into their expertise. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and his New Deal) and Lyndon Baines Johnson (Great Society) could end up being the last 100 years’ closest parallels to the Biden era “in terms of transforming the country in important ways in a short time,” Michael Beschloss, one of the attendees, told Mike Allen of Axios.

Of FDR and LBJ, the more compelling comparison might be the latter, based on conversations I’ve had recently with presidential historians. Some of the similarities: Longtime creatures of Capitol Hill. Seasoned operators more than soaring orators. And unexpected presidents—and in taxing and tumultuous times that doubled as rare apertures of opportunity.

“It’s important to learn from what worked and didn’t work in the past and gain 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 the meeting with historians, “about the challenges … our country is facing and looking back at history. And it’s a moment to step back and reflect and use it as lessons moving forward.”

Thursday’s 62-minute press conference in the East Room of the White House notably took place in the same space as Biden’s sit-down with the more than half-dozen high-profile historians.

Reporters’ questions trended perhaps predictably toward the present. Of the 10 Biden called on, as compiled by my colleague Theodoric Meyer, half of them asked about immigration. Three asked about the filibuster. There were two more questions about the presidential campaign of 2024 (2) than there were about Covid-19 (0). (“Are reporters missing the big picture and historic nature of Biden’s agenda?” CNN’s Brian Stelter wondered.) In any event, Biden answered the predominantly du-jour queries in practically tectonic terms, consistently conjuring not so much cycles (news or elections) as the vast patterns of centuries and generations.

“I believe 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 Yamiche Alcindor of PBS, trying to make a joke about his age. (Biden, for the record, was elected from Delaware to the upper chamber not in 1901 but in 1972.)

He got historically granular very quickly. “From between 1917 to 1971—the filibuster existed—there was a total of 58 motions to break a filibuster the whole time. Last year alone there were five times that many. So it’s being abused in a gigantic way,” he said. “It used to be you had to sit there and talk and talk and talk and talk until you collapsed. And guess what? People got tired of talking and tired of collapsing. Filibusters broke down …”

He turned from historian to prognosticator. “Look, I predict to you, your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded: autocracy or democracy? Because that is what is at stake—not just with China. Look around the world. We’re in the midst of a Fourth Industrial Revolution of enormous consequence. Will there be a middle class? How will people adjust to these significant changes in science and technology and the environment? How will they do that? And are democracies equipped?” he said in response to a question from Bloomberg’s Justin Sink.

“This,” Biden said, “is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.”

And in response to another question about immigration, this one from Janet Rodriguez from Univision, Biden cited his own family’s genealogy and the desperation that has driven the growth of America—with an anecdote humanizing migrants and justifying the asylum process while saying at the same time that not everyone gets in and not everyone can stay even if they want to 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”—off by a generation, he was referring to his maternal great-great-grandfather Owen Finnegan, a White House spokesperson told me—the “expectation was: Was he going to live long enough on that ship to get to the United States of America? But they left because of what the Brits had been doing. They were in real, real trouble. They didn’t want to leave. But they had no choice.”

“He’s kind of dealt with all these issues, so naturally he understands 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 the vice president. “I think there’s some comfort for a lot of Americans to be able to see someone again, even if they’re still nervous about the conditions we’re in, even if they’re not necessarily supportive of him—but someone who has some sense of that.”

“Donald Trump never could think beyond a given moment,” added Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson. “It’s very different.”

“The contrasts with Trump are, of course, ubiquitous,” John Woolley, the co-director of the American Presidency Project, told me in an email. “Part of that contrast for him is reminding us that he has a long view that is informed and not simplistic.”

Biden’s only pointed departure from that long view concerned not the past but the future. Pressed by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins on whether he’ll run for reelection, Biden demurred.

“I’m a great respecter of fate,” he said, reiterating a phrase he’s uttered many times over the course of many years. “I’ve never been able to plan … three and a half years ahead for certain.”

He capped his replies to Collins’ line of questioning with the use (three times) of a word that again was evocative of time in a much more expansive 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 in the air here at the outset of this presidency is an unlikely twist at this stage in the life of Biden, who’s traditionally been considered more middle-of-the-road, practical more than aggressively progressive. To many historians and political analysts that I’ve talked to, it is, at least for now, a function of the moment more than the man. If nothing else, they suggest, these comparisons are premature. Biden, after all, has been president for barely more than two months. But that doesn’t mean these conversations aren’t worthy.

On Thursday night, some six hours after the end of Biden’s press conference, I got on the phone with Jeffrey Engel, the founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. We talked about history’s disparate chapters but also their connective tissue.

FDR was elected president in 1932. LBJ was elected to Congress in 1937, and was elected to the Senate in 1948, and became president, of course, on November 22, 1963, and held the office until January of 1969. And not quite four years later, Biden was elected to the Senate.

“FDR took LBJ under his wing and used to play poker with him when he was a young congressman. LBJ got into the inner circle within his first couple of years as a young congressman in D.C. FDR was his personal hero. And Biden is there at the tail end, if you will, of the broad Johnson era, or at least the effect of Johnson’s policies,” Engel said.

“Biden comes in at the age of 30 to the Senate, and obviously has so much tragedy going on at that moment as well,” he continued, referencing the car wreck that killed his wife and his daughter and injured his two sons, “and every single person in the Senate wanted to mentor him—and all of them had spent time with LBJ or FDR.”

It is this chronology, the dawning of the possibility of this epic, three-step lineage from the Depression to the pandemic, that underscores how Engel sees and listens to Biden right now. “I hear it when he talks about the labor moment. When Biden talks about labor, you could close your eyes and picture a New Dealer,” he said.

“Biden knows,” Engel concluded, “that there’s only two or three moments in life that actually really matter for making a structural difference. And he’s sitting in the middle of one. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s thinking about generational change.”

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