Is Biden the "Reagan of the Left"?

No one expected Biden to be the one to transform American economic policy in a leftward direction. But he might.

Stephen Skowronek, a political scientist at Yale, has a pretty wild theory of American Presidents. He calls it a theory of “political time”, arguing that America elects its chief executives according to a very specific cycle. Here’s a summary from a 2016 interview in The Nation:

[Skowronek] claims all of presidential history follows a distinct pattern: “Reconstructive” presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan (to take only the last two cycles) transform American politics in their own image, clearing the field of viable competition and setting the terms of political debate. They are followed by hand-picked successors (Harry S. Truman and George H.W. Bush) who continue their predecessors’ policies and do little more than articulate an updated version of their ideas. They are usually succeeded in turn by presidents whom Skowronek calls “pre-emptive”—Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bill Clinton—who represent the opposite party but adopt the basic framework of the reigning orthodoxy. Next comes another faithful servant of that orthodoxy (John F. Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson; George W. Bush), followed by another preemptive opposition leader (Richard Nixon, Barack Obama) who again fails to overturn it. The final step in the sequence is a “disjunctive” president—usually somebody with little allegiance to the orthodoxy who is unable to hold it together in the face of the escalating crises it created and to which it has no response. The last disjunctive president, in Skowronek’s schema, was Jimmy Carter.

Any social scientist will immediately recognize that this theory is hilariously overfit. For the non-social scientists among you, overfitting is when you use a very complex explanation to try to explain every little zig and zag of the data, and end up not being able to make accurate predictions:

Skowronek’s theory purports to predict the exact sequence in which different types of U.S. Presidents are elected. A single interruption in the pattern, and the theory fails. Since there must be some randomness in the system, his theory is obviously only going to be right if it gets very, very lucky.

And yet, it looks like Skowronek might get very, very lucky! In defiance of all expectations, Joe Biden (!!!) looks like he might become the next transformative — or in Skowronek’s terms, “reconstructive” — President, setting the nation durably on a leftward course for the next few decades.


The Biden Blitz

Like most people, I expected Joe Biden to be a cautious, status-quo-biased, reformist sort of guy. After all, this is the guy who opposed busing, supported the 1994 crime bill, and was VP during the notably incrementalist Obama administration. Furthermore, he was almost universally perceived as one of the most moderate of the Democratic primary candidates in 2020, offering up reformist alternatives to Bernie Sanders’ plans. Nor was he perceived as being particularly “woke” on cultural issues. The general expectation was for him to reverse Trump’s more well-known policies like the Muslim Ban and family separation of asylum seekers, putter around the edges of policy with incremental fixes to health care and the welfare state, and appoint more competent people than Trump had done. To Americans exhausted after four years of what will likely go down as the worst presidency in the nation’s history, that might have felt like enough.

Yet despite the fact that he only took office 23 days ago, Biden has unleashed an absolute torrent of executive orders and legislative proposals that go far beyond anything I expected. Here’s Mehdi Hasan, a Biden skeptic aligned with the Bernie movement:

Biden rejoined the Paris climate agreement; canceled the Keystone XL pipeline; ordered the conservation of around 30 percent of all federal land and water by 2030 and the suspension of new oil and gas leases on federal land and water; established a White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, led by the first national climate adviser; and made climate change a national security and foreign policy priority…[T]he Biden White House [is] now pushing for a Covid-19 relief bill worth $1.9 trillion…Biden ended the Muslim bancanceled construction of the border wall; included undocumented immigrants in the census count; blocked the deportation of Liberian refugees; issued a memo “preserving and fortifying” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program shielding 650,000 immigrants from deportation; and announced a 100-day moratorium on all deportations (since blocked by a Trump-appointed judge). He also sent a bill to Congress offering a pathway to citizenship for around 11 million undocumented migrants and officially revoked the Trump administration's “zero tolerance” family separation policy at the border…He has since signed an executive order explicitly “combating racism, xenophobia, and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.”…Biden ordered the Department of Labor to develop plans to ensure a $15 an hour minimum wage for federal employees…Biden ordered a pause on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Climate writer David Roberts has a big post detailing all the things Biden has done on climate change in just three weeks. Here’s a list of Biden’s executive actions through February 11th — totaling 38, which is just 1 shy of Trump and Obama combined. In addition to what Hasan mentions above, Biden has sanctioned Myanmar’s military leaders for their recent coup, expanded refugee admissions, and more.

On the legislative front, Biden’s proposals are remarkably bold. His $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill includes two huge poverty-reduction initiatives — a tax credit of up to $3600 per child that would transform the U.S. welfare state, and a $15 federal minimum wage that would undo decades of minimum wage stagnation. But that’s only the beginning of what Biden is putting forward. Next comes a huge investment bill, expected to be worth $2 trillion. That will include infrastructure upgrades and green energy investments like electric vehicle charging stations. Biden is also planning an immigration overhaul that includes an amnesty and path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants. There are other big bills in the works as well.

This agenda might not be transformative enough to satisfy the fever dreams of diehard Bernie supporters, but if enacted it would be more transformative than anything since LBJ. Of course, with the filibuster still in place, it’s an open question how much of the legislative items Biden will be able to get past the Senate Republicans. But he’s swinging for the fences on all fronts.

Biden vs. Reagan

So does this make Biden the “Reagan of the Left”? Comparisons between Presidents are easy to fudge, because it’s easy to draw parallels from both similarities (Biden and Reagan are both old, both have a somewhat rosy view of their country, both want to give big amnesties, etc.) and differences (small-government conservatism vs. big-government progressivism). That’s kind of cheating!

But there may end up being some important parallels between the way Biden and Reagan change the country. Reagan managed to get his big tax cuts through a Democratic House of Representatives, but ultimately failed to cut government spending (and had to reverse some of the tax cuts when deficits exploded). He was famous as a deregulator, but actually much more of the significant deregulation happened under Carter and Clinton. Inflation was defeated by Volcker, who was a Carter appointee. If Biden is stymied by Mitch McConnell and the filibuster, legislative impotence could end up being his fate as well.

Yet Reagan was transformative for two big reasons. First, he changed the nature of the federal bureaucracy through his executive orders and his appointments — his order for OIRA to intervene in regulatory efforts was responsible for blocking lots of regulation for decades, and his NLRB is widely credited with having broken the power of unions in America (along with his firing of thousands of striking air traffic controllers). Second, Reagan set the tone for policy for decades to come — Clinton’s welfare reform, deficit hawkery, and financial deregulation, for example, came from a desire to defang Republicans’ perceive advantage on economic issues. By winning landslide elections with a conservative economic message, Reagan moved the political center to the right in an enduring fashion.

Biden, like Reagan, may transform the federal government in a more progressive direction via executive orders, appointments, and other actions that don’t require the assent of Congress. And though Biden doesn’t have a Reagan-like landslide under his belt, his vigorous attempts at a progressive transformation may set the tone for decades of future administrations — including Republicans, who under Trump had already dropped their attempts to gut entitlement programs. Mitt Romney’s own child credit proposal, which is even bolder than Biden’s, may be an early harbinger.

How could this aged centrist end up being the leader to switch the country onto a progressive track? If he manages to do it, it probably won’t be because of any personal characteristics of Biden — it will simply be what was required by the times.

Skowronek simplified

It’s possible to take Skowronek’s complex, overfit theory and, with just a few tweaks, reshape it into something much more parsimonious — something that doesn’t predict every electoral zig and zag, but which captures the basic features of the cycle Skowronek is trying to describe.

Suppose there are two basic forces at work in presidential politics — ideological lock-in, and diminishing returns to ideological programs. The first means that if a policy program seems to have good results (especially good electoral results, but also good economic results), future Presidents of both parties keep following and extending that basic program. But the second force, diminishing returns, means that this ideological program becomes increasingly inadequate to deal with the ever-evolving challenges faced by the nation. Eventually a crisis strikes, people realize the old way doesn’t work, and they elect someone with a mandate to shake things up and chart a new course.

In Reagan’s case, that crisis was the stagflation of the 1970s. In Biden’s, it was COVID. The small-government approach Reagan inculcated into the minds of generations of American policymakers was hilariously, tragically, disastrously inadequate to the challenge of the pandemic. And so the country’s leaders adjusted course, with the bipartisan CARES Act being both the most generous and the most effective government welfare program since Medicare. That in turn whet Americans’ appetite for greater government interventions — $15 minimum wage and $2000 checks are both extremely popular.

In other words, the edifice of Reaganism, so robust and vigorous in the 80s, had become increasingly decrepit over the decades, and COVID gave it the push it finally needed to topple over. Now Biden is the one who has to come up with the next big thing, simply because that is what America requires right now. His own history of moderation may not even matter; he’s surrounded by advisors and allies who understand the need for a transformational push toward bigger and less conditional cash handouts, increased government investment, and a greater focus on the environment and racial equality. This new approach may come to be called Bidenism, but it was developed by a huge array of thinkers and leaders.

So Skowronek might be proven right after all. Biden may change America simply because it’s time.