WASHINGTON — The early days of Joe Biden‘s presidency reveal a man who remembers the Obama presidency — and doesn’t necessarily want to repeat it.
Both presidents inherited a crisis-ravaged economy, but their signature 100-day achievements look markedly different: Biden’s stimulus plan was about 2½ times the size of President Barack Obama’s. It was easy for voters to understand, centered on popular $1,400 cash payments for most people, while Obama’s stimulus program was criticized as being too small and complicated, delivering small-dollar benefits in paychecks that polls showed many people didn’t even notice.
While Obama pared back his stimulus to win Republican votes, Biden met with Republicans once before he opted for a special process to go it alone. While conservative deficit hawks reined in Obama, Biden has brushed them off, arguing that now is the time to spend big. While Obama was hesitant to brag about his achievements, Biden’s team regularly takes credit for the receding pandemic — and voters give him high marks.
“It’s called learning from the past,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, who has served in Congress under the last four presidents. “Not repeating your mistakes.”
Obama took office in 2009 with huge congressional majorities after he captivated a progressive movement with the prospect of transformative change. Twelve years later, Biden took the baton with wafer-thin margins on Capitol Hill on a platform of healing a nation poisoned by President Donald Trump’s reign.
But in a strange twist, it is Biden, 78, an old-fashioned moderate, who is drawing liberal praise and comparisons to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, while Democrats cite the actions of Obama, the younger and charismatic first Black president, as a cautionary tale.
The story of Biden’s first 100 days mirrors the story of a Democratic Party changing course after eight years of successes and failures that produced governing lessons about how to satisfy voters, navigate Republicans and choose which experts to trust, according to more than two dozen Democrats who served one or both presidents or in Congress.
It is also the story of a party shedding its Reagan-era mindset and embracing a growing electorate of young and diverse Americans who want to turn the U.S. from a center-right to a center-left country.
The lessons shaped the White House’s attitude in quickly pushing through a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package, and they will test its ability to follow up with a $2 trillion infrastructure and jobs plan, as well as expand the family safety net.
Brian Fallon, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, said the Biden White House is correcting the mistakes of the Obama era.
“Don’t trim the price tag of your proposals based on bad advice from Larry Summers types. Don’t get bogged down about pay-fors based on bad-faith concerns from phony deficit hawks,” he said. “Don’t forget about judges or purposely de-prioritize them, as Rahm did. Don’t write off progressive activists as a group that you can never satisfy.”
(Summers was director of the National Economic Council early in the Obama administration, and Rahm Emanuel was Obama’s first White House chief of staff.)
Anita Dunn, a senior Biden adviser who was communications director in the Obama White House, said the presence of numerous Obama veterans on Biden’s team “heavily influenced the priorities of the transition.”
But she cautioned against drawing direct parallels.
“Because I regard the two situations as being so different from each other, I don’t think there is a lot of comparison to be made,” Dunn said, citing the nature of the crises in 2009 and 2021, the media and political environments, and the makeup of the Democratic caucus as key differences.
Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Obama, said his early years were a product of the times.
“Over the course of the eight years of the Obama administration, politics changed dramatically, and our approach changed with the times. The right comparison is where Obama was when he left in 2017 with where Biden is in 2021,” he said. “One of the biggest changes is the makeup of the Democratic Senate. On economic issues, the most conservative Democrat in 2021 is significantly to the left of the median Democrat in 2009.”
Obama’s huge congressional majorities relied on scores of rural and Southern lawmakers who were ideologically out of sync with him and have since been replaced by Republicans. Biden’s slim majority hinges on a new generation of suburban Democrats whose districts are more open to liberal ideas.
Some progressives say Obama needlessly picked business-friendly officials for top positions, such as Summers and former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who contributed to a culture of hesitation to take on Wall Street and eschewed simple populism on issues like foreclosure relief.
“The instincts of that administration were: We’re not going be populist-oriented or interested in taking on big fights with capital,” said Faiz Shakir, an adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. “You have a lot of veterans from the Obama administration who have reflected on some of the shortcomings in the policy and political approach and are trying to showcase that they’re correcting for them.”
‘We cannot make … those mistakes again’
Another difference is how the two presidents dealt with the opposition leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who held the same position in Obama’s early years and famously said in 2010 that his top priority was to make him a one-term president.
“The biggest lesson learned is that Mitch McConnell doesn’t act in good faith,” said David Litt, a former speechwriter for Obama. “You see Mitch McConnell’s Republicans running the same playbook. But Joe Biden and his administration and the Democrats — this time they know what’s coming.”
He said GOP votes not to count Biden electors after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 drove that home.
“The Biden administration came in saying: Maybe not all of these GOP lawmakers are totally committed to the whole democracy thing. And we should act accordingly,” Litt said.
McConnell has accused Biden of pursuing a left-wing agenda in contradiction to his campaign promises to seek unity. He offered similar criticisms of Obama early on. At the time, Democrats moderated their policies in search of GOP support — sometimes fruitlessly, as in the case of the Affordable Care Act.
Biden, by contrast, held one meeting with GOP senators about Covid-19 relief aid before he opted for a filibuster-proof process to pass his $1.9 trillion bill without them.
“‘Get me once, shame on you; get me twice, shame on me’ is at play here,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic strategist who used to be Obama’s pollster. “This whole idea that we can find Republican support for things is of a bygone era. It’s of a pre-Mitch McConnell era. It’s fair for Joe Biden to simply not play along with him in that cynical game.”
Republicans say the White House is learning the wrong lessons.
“They should learn the lesson that they shouldn’t pass things that the American public don’t want,” said Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., arguing that voters want a secure border, reopened schools, a ban on “men playing in women’s sports” and voter ID laws. “They should do things that the American public wants instead of doing things that kill the American economy.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., identified two lessons from the Obama era, when he was the caucus’ third-in-command: Err on the side of going big on crisis relief, and don’t waste time.
“In 2009 and ’10, we did not put together a robust recovery bill, and we stayed in recession for too many years. And then we spent a year and a half negotiating on something good, the ACA, but didn’t get anything else done,” he said. “We cannot make either of those mistakes again.”
The different backgrounds of Obama and Biden have also shaped their political realities. Obama’s ascent represented a tectonic shift for multiracial democracy that triggered a racial backlash; Democrats with divided constituencies sought distance. Biden doesn’t have that problem. And centrists in his party are more comfortable embracing his programs.
While Obama had a knack for making moderate programs like the Affordable Care Act sound transformative to progressives, Biden’s talent has been to make FDR-size liberal ideas sound moderate.
“Joe Biden happens to be an old white guy. There’s something comforting to those old middle-of-the-road white voters about an old middle-of-the-road white guy,” Belcher said. “When Joe Biden says something, it comes across differently than if Barack Obama said it. Implicit bias is real.”