He ran for President at a time of record unemployment and economic despair, with democracy itself in apparent retreat around the globe. He overcame tremendous personal hardship and promised to heal a battered nation. His friends thought of him as a unifier; his enemies called him a socialist.
If this sounds to you like Joe Biden, you’d be right. If this sounds like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, you’d also be right.
With just a week before the election, Biden traveled to Warm Springs, Ga., Tuesday to deliver a speech on national healing and economic redemption—and to wrap himself in FDR’s mantle. The venue was laden with significance. Not only because Biden is making a late push for victory in Georgia, but also because Warm Springs was where Roosevelt went to convalesce from the paralysis that followed a polio diagnosis in his 30s. Roosevelt had a little white house there, and the place became both a second home to him and a symbol of his fortitude in the face of illness.
“This place, Warm Springs, is a reminder that though broken, each of us can be healed,” Biden said. “That as a people and a country, we can overcome a devastating virus. That we can heal a suffering world. That yes, we can restore our soul and save our country.”
In the closing weeks of the race, Biden has sought to link the two major themes of his campaign—unity and healing—to the great presidents of American history. Three weeks ago, he delivered a speech in Gettysburg about the importance of repairing a “house divided,” invoking Abraham Lincoln’s famous words. But Roosevelt, more than Lincoln or even Barack Obama, may be Biden’s closest presidential parallel.
Both Biden and Roosevelt were underestimated early in their careers. Roosevelt was called a “lightweight” by critics; Biden was mocked for his frequent gaffes. Roosevelt was a mediocre student and an unremarkable lawyer; so was Biden. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once famously said that Roosevelt had a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament; Biden has little of Obama’s erudition but is famous for his easy way of building connections. Roosevelt’s New Deal aimed to draw America out of the Great Depression through massive government programs; Biden’s “Build Back Better plan” promises to put Americans to work helping the country recover from COVID-19. Roosevelt’s bout with polio gave him empathy for Americans’ suffering; Biden’s loss of his wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash, followed by his son Beau’s fatal cancer in 2015, has made him a political translator of American grief.
Perhaps most importantly, Biden seems to share Roosevelt’s belief that the federal government should be relied upon to help ordinary Americans in times of need. Roosevelt created Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act to protect the elderly and workers; his Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration put thousands of Americans to work. His vision was a new type of social contract between the American people and the federal government: the idea that if you were old and sick, or out of work, the government would have your back. It’s also true that these 1930s programs perpetuated the racial inequality of the day; while the improving economy benefited Black Americans, they were excluded from many New Deal protections and opportunities—something Biden has attempted to remedy in his plans. Biden’s Build Back Better program includes racial equity proposals to close the racial wealth gap, new family leave protections, a Public Health Jobs Corps, and investing in millions of jobs in manufacturing, infrastructure and clean energy. It’s in the same vein as Roosevelt’s vision: when Americans fall down because of a global pandemic, the government can help them get back up.
There are other parallels. Roosevelt tried unsuccessfully to pack the courts in 1937, partly in an attempt to ensure that his New Deal would survive. In the aftermath of Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s rushed confirmation, Biden is under similar pressure from the left to consider adding justices to the Supreme Court if he’s elected. He’s declined to take a definitive position on packing the court, besides saying he’d appoint a commission to issue recommendations.
Detractors hurled similar insults at both men. President Trump has wrongly accused Biden of being a socialist many times; Roosevelt was called “a socialist, not a Democrat” by one critic, while a GOP congressman called the New Deal “undisguised state socialism.” Former New York Governor Al Smith said his government had the stench of “the foul breath of Communist Russia.”
Biden is well aware of the similarities. In several recent interviews, he has cited the Roosevelt presidency as an inspiration for what he hopes to achieve and how he wants to do it. “There’s no such thing as guaranteed democracy,” he told Brene Brown on her podcast, explaining how writer Walter Lippmann had encouraged FDR to impose a dictatorship in order to pull America out of the Depression, and FDR had resisted the call. “There’s nothing automatic about this,” Biden said. “We have to earn it every single generation.”
Both men are more practical than ideological. When asked about the philosophy behind the Tennessee Valley Authority, Roosevelt said, “It’s neither fish nor fowl, but whatever it is, it will taste awfully good to the people of the Tennessee Valley.” Biden, too, has embraced an elastic style of politics. “I’m kind of in a position that FDR was,” Biden told The New Yorker in an interview in July. “What in fact FDR did was not ideological, it was completely practical.”
At his speech in Warm Springs, Biden repeated an old legend about Roosevelt: a man collapsing in grief when FDR’s funeral procession passed. “Did you know the President?” somebody asks the man. “No,” the man says. “But he knew me.”
Seventy-five years after Roosevelt’s death, Rep. Jim Clyburn echoed those words in referring to Biden. “I know Joe, we know Joe,” Clyburn said in a speech endorsing Biden ahead of the South Carolina primary. “But most importantly, Joe knows us.”