Regina de Heer: Were in DC in front of the White House. Did you get an opportunity to watch the State of the Union last night?
Miriam: No, I did not. I was too sleepy.
Anu: I certainly did.
Alicia: I thought overall, President Biden did a great job addressing a lot of the issues at hand within the country and addressed a lot of the emotional turmoil that the American people are going through while also really just vocalizing the response that he wants to have with the crisis going on in Ukraine.
Regina: What do you think of Biden's first year?
Anu: I think he's doing the best he can under the circumstances. He inherited a lot of problems. He doesn't have a magic wand to correct everything overnight.
Leslie: I think it has been incredibly difficult position that he was put in when he was elected, and that was dealt by some. I pray for him all the time.
Alicia: It gave me a little more hope seeing the plans that are being set in place and the legislation that they're working on and that has been passed.
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show, I'm Kai Wright. Joe Biden's presidency has been a hard thing for me to wrap my head around, honestly. Last spring on this very show, we were talking about Biden's real transformational potential. We had a whole show where we entertained the idea that a new era was about to begin, one in which government was no longer a dirty word, and in which people had faith in the public sector to improve their lives, a bold new future. That's not how things have developed. On the contrary, it feels like we've gone back in time. NATO's in conflict with Russia.
There is anxiety about too much public spending. People are worried about crime and want more cops. Biden's word time bump aside, his poll numbers do suggest a meaningful number of people who were excited about his presidency, have been disappointed so far. What happened to Biden's transformational presidency? Can it all be chalked up to Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema? I'm going to talk tonight to a political scientist who I suspect thinks everything that I just said reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how presidents do and do not shape our politics.
Corey Robin is a professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Last spring back when I was fantasizing about a new era of love for big government, he was warning that Biden was unlikely to be a transformational figure. He also spent much of the Trump years arguing that liberals and conservatives alike have been exaggerating Trump's power and impact as well. Cory, thank you for joining us.
Corey Robin: Thanks for having me. I'm really glad to be here tonight.
Kai: Listeners, we can take your calls as we talk. I am particularly interested in hearing from people who were excited about Biden's presidency. If you were among the people dancing in the streets about it, how do you feel now? Corey, let's start with the big picture on transformational presidencies and how we should and should not think about them. You have written way back in December, I believe, you wrote in the New York Times, you argued that no president since Ronald Reagan has had a more productive first year than Joe Biden, and yet you also wrote nonetheless, "There's a sense of stuckness that no amount of social spending or policy innovation can seem to dislodge."
The question is why? You say Brighton is a prisoner of impossible expectations, and it's got something to do with presidential regimes, not presidential terms. Let's start there, explain that.
Corey: Yes. I think we tend to think of presidents with little more than two years hindsight or two years foresight, and the truth of the matter is that presidents operate in the context of these presidential regimes. FDR inaugurated the New Deal regime that lasted until 1980. The characteristic of a regime is that no matter who occupies the White House, Republican or Democrat, they have to speak within the constraints of a broad shared language. Dwight David Eisenhower, when he was elected in 1952, many people hoped, "Oh, he's going to roll back the New Deal, and he didn't.
In fact, he extended the New Deal. Ronald Reagan was the last transformational leader who had inaugurated a new regime. Since 1980, we've been living in the shadow of that. If you remember Bill Clinton declared the era of big government over. Barack Obama came into office, there was a lot of high expectations of transformation, and very quickly discovered that the rules of Reaganism were still in play. Joe Biden is pretty much in a somewhat similar situation. I think we had hoped, many people, that it would be different but as we've seen things play out, we could talk more about why and how, the rules of Reaganism have not been overturned yet, and that's what we're living with.
Kai: Let's talk a little bit about the why and how, not just Biden, but in general. If we can map our history through these regimes, and I think in that piece you list like five of them, so there's not a lot going back to Thomas Jefferson, what actually shifts a regime? What are the conditions that allow that kind of change?
Corey: Two things. One is the regime itself is very, very weak and sclerotic. Think of Herbert Hoover's presidency or Jimmy Carter's presidency, those are two good examples. Hoover was part of this extended Gilded Age regime, Jimmy Carter was part of the extended New Deal regime. Both of these presidents were governing at a moment where the rules were really in freefall and collapse. You could see it in what they were doing. Jimmy Carter was a Democrat, but he appointed Paul Volcker to the Fed, who was a very tight money Republican-ish leader of the Fed.
Jimmy Carter expanded military spending. All of these things suggested that the New Deal order was coming undone. That's one-half of it that you need in order for a regime to be toppled. The other half is you need a president who was elected, fundamentally committed, not just rhetorically, but politically and institutionally to the gutting of that regime. Ronald Reagan, again, though the one in most recent memory, Ronald Reagan had gone through 20 years of a long march within the Republican Party to transform it into a really fundamentally anti-New Deal policy.
It wasn't going to compromise with the New Deal, it was going to shatter it. Likewise, Franklin Delano Roosevelt committed to shattering the Gilded Age order. Abraham Lincoln fundamentally committed to shattering the slaveocracy, people oftentimes think that was just a product of the Civil War. It wasn't. The Republican Party was an abolitionist party. You have to have these two factors. You need a regime that's very vulnerable, and you need a presidency and a party behind him or her that is committing to shattering that order. Go ahead.
Kai: Why don't you think it's putting Biden in that context? I think a lot of people felt like I felt like at least that first pillar that you're talking about was in existence, that it felt like a regime was shattering when we looked at Republican politics in general and the ideas of Reaganism. They didn't even have purchase in the Republican Party anymore it seemed like. Joe Biden's rhetoric, at least at the beginning, was very much, he sounded like FDR. What is it that those of us who thought there was a shift coming didn't see that you saw?
Corey: I think you were absolutely right about the fragility of the Republican order, and you've given very good examples. Trump, in many ways, was very similar to Jimmy Carter, that he was scrambling the rules within his own party of what was acceptable and what wasn't acceptable. Remember his big stimulus package that the Republicans under his leadership passed with those extensive unemployment benefits. It was very transformative in its way. You're absolutely right about that first half. I think the problem is with the second half.
The fact of the matter is, is that Joe Biden, there was a very bitterly fought out primary, and the Democratic Party, I don't want to say it was the Democratic party elites, but the Democratic Party made a decision, a fundamental decision that they wanted to go with the candidate who was more reassuring, who promised, promised that really nothing fundamental will change. That was the nature of that political battle. Now, I know after the election, and with January 6th and the pandemic, there was a feeling like, "Well, wait a minute, the rules are really up for grabs now."
The fact of the matter is political parties in order to become transformative parties, they have to undergo something like what happened with the nomination of Ronald Reagan in 1980 or FDR. There just has to be a much more fundamental clash where the transformative part of the party comes out victorious, and that just did not in the end happen. The party made a firm decision, it did not want to go that route. That's where we are.
Now, I don't want to exaggerate this too much because the truth of the matter is, as you said, there are two Democratic senators who have held some things up that might've pushed things, but in a way, I think that more illustrates the point that under an FDR type of regime change order or Reagan, two people can't hold things up. They get swooshed away in the landslide.
Kai: By the force of history that's coming.
Corey: Yes. It's very, very hard to have that kind of resistance. I think, in a way, this is why people are so frustrated because, on the one hand, it seems so within our grasp, it's almost there, and then you have what feels like these two, I was thinking of The Princess and the Pea story. These two peapods stopping everything. And why can't they get swept away? Because the party is not quite there yet. I think it could be but it's just not there yet.
Kai: What do you think of the state of the union? This for me was the example. Joe Biden went from sounding like FDR to sounding Bill Clinton. He didn't even mention, one of our producers pointed out today, one of the most popular ideas in democratic party liberal politics, student debt relief didn't even come up. I just want to [unintelligible 00:10:47] you to think about what you heard there was, that for you like, "Okay, this is exactly what I said a year ago." Believe this man when he speaks or did you hear anything new?
Corey: Both actually. The part that was the continuous part as you said, I thought that your Bill Clinton reference is right on point. Remember in the second half of this speech, it was just this river of proposals and policy positions. One of which was we're going to get social media advertisers out of our kids' lives and so forth. It reminded me of Bill Clinton's 1996 state of the union address where the big thing he was calling for was school uniforms. It's exactly the same kind of a thing. You focus on the kids the little things because your big economic package can't make it all the way through.
I was also struck by in the Ukraine part of the speech. I don't know how anybody could've heard that and not thought to themselves, "Wait a minute. Are you describing Russia under Putin or are you describing the United States and its lack of democracy and its oligarchy?" The contrast between those two things, the fact that he said democracy is coming to Russia and Ukraine, meanwhile voting rights got just the bearest blip of a mention in the state of the union speech. In my times piece from December, I'd said without voting rights, you are not going to have a transformational presidency, and that's not just for moral reasons.
Voting rights are the key to lock in institutionally the party's achievements within a transformational presidency. When you don't have that institutional locking in, you don't have a long-term transformation, it's just not possible. The fact that voting rights was just like in the rearview window, here today, gone tomorrow, I think indicates where the party is at.
Kai: Let's go to James in Toms River, New Jersey. James, welcome to the show.
James: Hi, thanks for having me on. Great coverage. I think that presidents, in general, get an outsized amount of responsibility put on them. They can only do so much within the framework. Our government acts slow, that's what it is. It's almost by design. I wasn't a Biden supporter. I wanted to return to normalcy though, and I think that he's trying to do that as best as possible, but at the end of the day, if people aren't with him, there's only so much he can do. He's got to work within the framework of how our government works. If two senators want to be sticks in the mud, then that's the way that it is.
Kai: Can I ask what did the return to normalcy mean to you when you say that, what did that mean to you?
James: The whole getting away from just the insanity that was Donald Trump. To be honest with you, I lean a little bit more libertarian but in a real sense of the word. Trump wated big government, just his kind, and that's not what I wanted. It was just crazy back then. I want a boring president that's more focused on policies and getting things done than tweeting.
Kai: Thank you for that James. A boring president and limits to what a president can achieve. I guess I want to put that together, what James had to say together with my broader question, Corey, for you about you wrote another piece in New Yorker early in Biden's presidency where, again, you predicted that this return to normalcy would not be transformational, and in which you said Trump also had not been transformational. Setting aside the details of Trump for a moment, you said quote, "Biden's presidency would mark 12 years of an era in which the call of the voters is answered by the palsy of our institutions.
Maybe I'm glomming something onto James he wasn't saying, but unpack for me what you mean by that. That palsy of our institutions that stand that presumably get in the way of the presidential power that some of us want but that you and James think presidents aren't going to have.
Corey: I think there's a couple of key institutions that are getting in the way. The first and foremost is the United States Senate. It's one of the most anti-democratic counter-majoritarian legislative institutions in the world, and it's the place where transformational politics goes to die, it always has been from the very get-go. I'm not even talking about the filibuster at all. When I say all that, if you look at the statistics, 50 democratic senators represent something like 40 million more voters than the Republican senators do. The Republican's constituents tends to be white, tend to be rural, tend to be older, and that institution blocks transformational change.
Barack Obama had to deal with this starting after the 2010 midterm. Interestingly, Donald Trump had to deal with it as well. We can get into the specifics of that or not, but the point being is that these three presidencies, very different in their personality, very different in their politics and in their character and their temperament, yet you see the same pattern over and over and over again where the big transformational politics get stopped. That's the senate. The other is of course the United States Supreme Court. We haven't even dealt with, let's assume Biden could some of his packages through Congress and signed them.
You have it now a 6 to 3 conservative Supreme court that is dead set on much of these kinds of transformational politics. This is the position that the Supreme court has historically occupied in our polity, striking down legislation that has the support of the majority over and over and over again. That is another part of what assume, like I said, that Biden had gotten that program through, we have no idea what the Supreme Court would do. They'd certainly try to stop FDR as well.
Kai: I'm talking with political scientist Corey Robin about when presidencies can and cannot be transformative. After the break, we'll talk about what he says we've all gotten wrong about Donald Trump's power in some detail, and we'll take more of your calls. Were you initially excited about Biden's presidency? If you were among the people dancing in the streets when he won the 2020 election, how do you feel now? We'll be right back.
Kousha: Hey everyone. This is Kousha. I'm a producer. Last week you heard Kai talk to Brian Lehrer about the state of our public discourse. We asked you what entices you to engage in difficult conversations about touchy subjects. Here's one voicemail we got from a listener named Leora.
Leora: I have grown into being less afraid to be my full self. Being my full self is a proud fat black woman who is outspoken and who is shy and who is funny and who is loud and sometimes inappropriate. Embracing all of these things. I have to have these conversations to answer your question because I don't have a choice. I don't have a choice in the spaces I move. I think if you are anyone who is physically othered, your choice to just be apolitical or to just be quiet, I don't think you really have that choice. We aren't afforded that privilege because our whole humanity is at stake. That's me. Thanks for listening.
Kai: We are listening, and when we say we want to hear from you, we really mean it, so thanks, Leora. If you've got something to share, send us a message, record yourself on your phone, and email us. The address is email@example.com. Again, that's firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.
[music – President montage]
Kai: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright. Corey, before the break, I alluded to your long standing argument that liberals and conservatives alike have overstated Trump's power even as president, let alone now. You've argued that the strongman caricature we've assigned him is mistaken. In fact, you've argued that today's right-wing is not at all comparable to a fascist takeover, as many have said, but rather, and I'll quote, "An artifact of the world's most ancient and extant legal order holding on to the constitution and the institutions it authorizes for dear life." Explain yourself here, Corey.
Corey: There's two elements of this that I would talk about. One is if we just actually look at the record of Donald Trump and compare it to presidents like George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon, the fact of the matter is he was extraordinarily constrained in what he tried to do and was very unsuccessful in getting it done. Even on something like immigration, which rightly got so much attention because of the cruelty that we saw at the border. The truth of the matter is that Trump was never able to get an immigration bill through to restrict immigration through Congress even when the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress.
We forget that those first two years, they had total control over all those federal institutions and they weren't able to get an immigration bill through. He couldn't even get funding for his wall from a Republican Congress, which led to huge fights between him and Paul Ryan. Of course, there is the famous debacle of Obamacare, they weren't able to overthrow that.
If you look even more closely at his budgets, and this drove a lot of very conservative Republicans crazy, the budgets were pretty much Barack Obama budgets in terms of spending on things like Planned Parenthood, things like the National Endowment of the Arts, all those culture war things that you would think they would've gone after, they never did, and when they tried to, they were unsuccessful. There's so much in the record that I think, again, has been eclipsed because he was such an odious and disgusting man in terms of on social media, but we didn't really see it the way the policies went down.
The second part of what you're asking about just quickly is that the fascist comparison is oftentimes meant to mean that he appeals to this popular white working-class base, and that's where he gets his power from. I think that really gets the whole story backwards. That was true of presidents like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Not only did that red meat politics, it worked for them, they had huge electoral majorities. Trump, on the other hand, never once got an electoral majority, a popular majority. What put him into power and kept the Republicans in power were three things, the Electoral College, which is by no means a fascist institution. We should get rid of it.
Kai: I guess [crosstalk], yes, but no, not by the definition.
Corey: We should get rid of it. We should get rid of it, but that's not what it's about. It's the Electoral College, the Supreme Court, and it's, again, as I said, the United States Senate. These have been the pillars of Republican power and they will continue to be in the future. Those are all artifacts of our constitution. The Republican Party could not exist as it does and wield any power without those institutional mechanisms. I would also add federalism, which gives so much power to states. I think the way we think about this problem is have it a little bit backwards and don't see where the real danger lies and focus more on other things.
Kai: Then the growing concern amongst many people, myself included, with the notion of minority rule, I guess your core argument here is that that's actually how it's built and there it is.
Corey: Yes. I think minority rule, that is the right way, and this is from the very get-go was when I was warning about with Trump that I was focused initially on the Supreme Court. Then lo and behold, you start seeing how it bleeds out into all these other areas. Minority rule is the problem, and the Constitution enables it. We've had two presidents in this century elected without winning the popular vote where the other candidate won more votes. We hadn't had that throughout the 20th century. It had happened in the 19th century a few times.
We're reverting back to an older style of rule that I think people had hoped we had overcome. Again, here's where the Constitution becomes such an enabler. It's something that I think liberals tend to-- I think they've gotten better about the conversation on that order, but they tend to dance around that because I think we associate the constitution with things like free speech, freedom of association.
Kai: The 14th Amendment, the 15th Amendment.
Corey: The 14th Amendment, the civil rights, voting rights, those are all part of the Constitution, but there's a lot of else that goes into the Constitution.
Kai: Let's take some calls. Let's go to Jim in South Orange. Jim, welcome to the show.
Jim: Hi, how are you?
Kai: I am well. Go ahead.
Jim: If I could piggyback on what you guys were just discussing, there's no question that Trump never became the fascist that he craved to be, but that doesn't mean that he didn't want to be one. There's no question that he was white privileges last dstand, or hopefully he was, but he wanted to be a fascist. Everything he said and most of what he did was pointing in that direction, but the fact that he never got to be one doesn't negate everything, all the evidence. Anyway, I'll talk about what I called about.
Kai: It's a useful point. Thank you for that, Jim. Is this a distinction without a difference? What about Joe Biden? You, I take it, were hopeful about Joe Biden when he was elected.
Jim: Of course, I was quite hopeful when Biden was elected, hopeful that his last name did not begin with a T, and that we might see some transformative policies, some redistributive economics, some more fairness in the way society was structured, some opportunity-
Kai: How do you feel now?
Jim: -spread further down through the society. I feel quite disappointed. I don't understand the dynamic of trying to work with people who have a knife in your back. I see it throughout, it's like a culture of the Democratic Party. It's Mr. Nice Guy, Ms. Nice Guy stuff where people have shown themselves, this party has shown themselves--
Kai: Jim, I'm going to stop you there just for time, but I get the message of the party. Your disappointment is that maybe Joe Biden has not shown the thing that Corey Robin is saying is one of the pillars of a transformational presidency, which is a willingness to just fight and tear down the last one. Let's go to Salvador in Greenwich Village. Salvador, welcome to the show.
Salvador: Hello, gentlemen. How are you?
Kai: Very well.
Salvador: Good. I'm someone who was in the streets jumping for joy when Biden got elected. I was very hopeful and I feel that Biden knows the broad-based constituency that got him elected, and he's tried to address all of their issues, but I think he came against the forces of reaction in this country. I think he takes a long-term view, in his case, the long-term view is midterm election. He has to win another significant legislative victory before the midterms.
The alternative to Biden is so horrible and reactionary that I think people got to be motivated to elect more senators, more Congresspeople into office, and he would do our bidding, he would do the bidding of his broad-based coalition. I think he's doing the best he can. He's a smart guy, he's a mature guy. I wish him the best, that's the best.
Kai: Thank you, Salvador. Let's go to Kate in Washington Heights. Kate, welcome to the show.
Kate: Hi, thanks so much for taking my call. I wanted to say that I think Biden has erased the white noise that Trump had around his presidency, were able to focus on the actual issues. I also was very encouraged by the trading ban or the trading curb that is now I think on the Senate floor to put pressure on lawmakers to not trade stocks and to not benefit personally from information that they had. I think that's in direct response to the corruption that existed under Trump.
Kai: Thank you, Kate. We have less than a minute left, Corey, but in as pointed as you can, what do I do with the point that you were making here?
Corey: I think one of the callers brought this up is that there needs to be more power on the left. It's not just going to come from within the party, it needs to be a social movement, and that that's the way the Lincoln Republican regime came about, that's the way FDR's New Deal order came about. You had the marriage of a party willing to act with a social movement on the ground.
Kai: Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Thanks for joining us.
Corey: Thank you.
Kai: United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Sound design by Jared Paul. Matthew Mirando was at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillmann, and Kousha Navidar, and I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @kai_wright or you can find me live every Sunday evening, 6:00 PM Eastern. You can stream the show at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Until then, thanks for listening and take care of yourselves.
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