ANALYSIS | Biden embraces his inner radical to confront winter of peril

Dramatic circumstances from pandemic to attack on democracy will shape the 46th presidency

21 January 2021 - 20:28 By Edward Luce

It is often forgotten that Franklin D Roosevelt — America’s most radical 20th century president — was seen as a mediocrity by many of his peers. Joe Biden never came top of his class either. But in his inaugural address he laid out an agenda no US president since FDR has matched. Biden listed the “cascading crises of our era” that he plans to confront — a raging pandemic, flailing US democracy, systemic racism, America’s fallen standing in the world and the “cry of survival from the planet itself”. Any two of these would bamboozle a president in ordinary times. But 2021 is a time of concentric emergencies. Biden has chosen to go for all of the above. 

The breadth of Biden’s ambition will take many by surprise. As a life-long moderate Democrat, Biden’s philosophy is assumed to be conservative with a small “c”, added to progressive with a small “p”. But politics is all about circumstance. Just as hyper-ambitious presidents have incrementalism thrust upon them — think of Bill Clinton — others have historic dramas piling up their in-trays. America’s most radical change has more often come from the centre, not the left or the right. Its most consequential presidents — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and FDR — were all leaders of moderate temperament. Their skill was to bring others along...

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