At first, with landmark legislation passing (and possibly even the pandemic), the President seemed determined to prove he was no ordinary Joe.
In fact, with strong COVID relief and a true bipartisan infrastructure package enacted, a mass vaccination campaign taking off with the economy, some pundits have compared President Joe Biden to another Democrat seeking to transform and reassuring a shaken nation: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
But these days, amid soaring infections and inflation and international crises involving Iran, Russia and elsewhere, some pundits and several congressional critics are comparing Biden to a lesser-known Democrat: Jimmy Carter.
While any comparison is complex — there are quite a few presidential predecessors in any incumbent — the presidential parallel who seems most similar to Biden is actually Gerald Ford.
After all, Biden and Ford came into office after scandal-ridden presidents. Ford after Richard Nixon resigned over Watergate. Biden, after winning a narrow but clear victory over Donald Trump, whose denial and disregard of the election results culminated in the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.
Both Ford and Biden emphasized unity between Americans and their elected representatives. For Ford, it was his defining dynamic, summed up in the title of his autobiography: “A Time to Heal.”
“Certainly the comparison with Joe Biden is with Gerald Ford,” agreed Douglas Brinkleywho himself wrote a biography of the 38and President. Brinkley, a prominent presidential historian who is a professor of history at Rice University, said that while Carter was governor of Georgia for one term, Biden and Ford were Washington institutions — Ford in the House, Biden in the Senate. Both driven by bipartisan and sympathetic instincts. “They built their careers not as power brokers, but as healers, unifiers, reaching out, slapping on the back,” Brinkley said.
If Ford’s goal was to heal, Biden’s seems to be to make sure the wound doesn’t get worse, stressing in his campaign and his presidency that he is “fighting for the soul of the nation.”
But so does Trump, who in his post-presidency is the anti-Nixon, choosing not to become a relative recluse in San Clemente but still being available from Mar-a-Lago to sideline Republicans deemed disloyal and endorsing sidekicks in Republican primaries – possibly before he enters presidential contests in 2024.
“If there’s a big difference, it’s that the polarization we see today was in its infancy during the Ford era,” said Scott Kaufman, also Ford’s biographer. Kaufman, chairman of the history department at Francis Marion University, added that when Nixon left office, “he was really short on supporters; the Republicans were ready to impeach him. Whereas in Trump’s case, he leaves his duties with a party that in many ways feels like they have to do their bidding.”
After the acrimony of the Nixon and Trump eras, Ford and Biden both had honeymoons, Kaufman noted, with Ford cut short due to his early pardon of Nixon and Biden cut short because “Biden takes office with a nation polarized, a Republican Party that is determined to oppose him, a Republican leadership in the Senate that has made it clear that it will use every opportunity to block or prevent the passage of its legislation. »
It’s not just the GOP. Last week’s failed bid to pass suffrage legislation and an anti-obstruction method to do so showed Democratic divisions among their minimal majority, where ideological differences between the Manchin-Sinema centrists and the wing Sanders-Warren of progressives can also halt progress. Ford never had a Republican majority in Congress to work with, and Kaufman said he ascended to the presidency “just as the Republican Party is starting to show signs of division. You’ve got this neoconservative movement growing.” who “is going to start moving the party to the right. It’s not who Ford was.
In fact, Ford was more moderate. Just like Biden. But sometimes he took into account the left-hand turn of the base and added to the polarization that defines our era. Indeed, the Biden era does not appear to be a time for healing, but a time for ostensibly tackling America’s sociopolitical mange so that there is no time for healing.
There are other striking parallels between presidencies beyond tracking leaders who are impeached (Trump) or about to be impeached (Nixon). Both Ford and Biden have overseen chaotic withdrawals from unpopular wars, down to the iconic images of helicopters ferrying Americans and (not enough) allies out of collapsing countries – Ford with Vietnam and Biden with America. Afghanistan. Both seemed helpless, even unhappy, to react to inflation, with Ford sporting “WIN” (Whip Inflation Now) buttons and Biden trying to label the blight as transitory, when evidence and economists mostly suggest that it will last. And both have struggled to deal with communicable diseases: Ford with swine flu and Biden with coronavirus, a crisis of scale and scope beyond swine flu.
Both were gaffe-prone (prolific at gaffes, really), especially when it came to Russian aggression. Ford (in)famously asserted during a presidential debate that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration” (to which the moderator, Max Frankel of the New York Times, replied, “I’m sorry what?”). And even this week, Biden signaled that a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine could mean a more muted response, alarming Western allies and the West Wing, who were quick to clarify.
Still, the misunderstandings seemed to make Ford and Biden even more human and approachable, traits that have served both well. Ford’s University of Michigan iron grit gave way to kindness in his political and personal life. He had “an All-American family,” Kaufman said. “Here’s a guy with rolled up sleeves, who loved to watch football, big sports fan, skier, beautiful family, they all seemed to get along well.” Both first ladies were/are great assets, Brinkley added, while warning that if Republicans take control of Congress “they’re going to make a big deal out of Hunter Biden.”
Ford’s pardon of Nixon may have cost him the 1976 election, but won him belated, though lasting, accolades, including that of John F. Kennedy in 2001. Profile in Courage Award for “his courage in making a controversial decision of conscience to forgive” Nixon. Biden, conversely, could take on Trump again if both men decide to run.
Ford ran and lost to Carter in a race that was closer than 2020. But Ford, the healer, graciously conceded and moved on. “I think he’s unfairly called a keeper; I think he was more than that,” Kaufman said. Mentioning several political accomplishments and even a pardon, which “was probably the right thing to do”, Kaufman said that while Ford was a Republican, “he was not an ideologue”.
Biden, Brinkley said, was elected more as a “placeholder.” Someone who “could unify the party to stop Donald Trump. And he filled that role. But the idea that you can have a New Deal or a Great Society [agenda] when you barely have control of the Senate and the House, it’s just not doable.” 2020, Brinkley added, “wasn’t a one-term election.”
Indeed, much like Ford, Biden’s presidency — at least based on the first year — seems more transient than transformative.
John Rash is an editorial writer and columnist for the Star Tribune. The Rash report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Friday on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.