[Note: The author drafted this piece several weeks before Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) referred to Pres. Biden as “Jimmy Carter 2.0”]
When Jimmy Carter was elected the 39th President of the United States in 1976, he inherited an ideological dilemma. He was a Southern Democrat of the New Deal tradition, but times were changing. The economically libertarian, socially conservative political movement catalyzed by William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan was steadily gaining traction. The New Deal had saved Americans from the Depression, but four decades had passed since then. Familiarity, after all, breeds contempt.
Carter had a lot going for him against incumbent Gerald Ford. Incumbents normally enjoy an electoral advantage over challengers. Ford, however, had inherited the presidency from Richard Nixon, an onerous association. Worse, he had not even been elected to the vice presidency on the Nixon ticket but was appointed to it after Spiro Agnew resigned. Nor was Ford blessed with much charisma or vision of his own. The economy was in trouble and memories of Vietnam lay heavily on voters’ minds.
A presidential challenger could hardly ask for a more advantageous playing field. Carter famously enjoyed a lead of thirty percentage points over Ford in the national polls when he was chosen as the Democratic candidate. And yet, on Election Day, he barely garnered 50% of the popular vote (to Ford’s 48%) and, crucially, a majority in the Electoral College.
What went wrong in the Carter campaign? Policy concerns were one problem. The New Deal emphasized state intervention in the economy, requiring heavier taxation and government spending. Carter’s Democratic ideology came from that tradition, but he knew the winds were beginning to blow the other way. His central campaign promise was that he would balance the federal budget. He had, after all, balanced the state budget as governor of Georgia.
In addition to such ideological inconsistencies, Carter’s public persona was confused and confusing. He aimed to come across as a soothing, religious, fatherly Southerner, and generally succeeded. Unfortunately, this image was compromised by his occasional strident attacks on Gerald Ford, his uncomfortable candor about his private life in an infamous Playboy interview, and the inevitable revelations of occasional hypocrisy and politicking which accrue to any longtime public figure.
These and other issues plagued Carter’s presidency, culminating in his overwhelming defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980. It was the dawn of twelve years of Republican leadership and the emergence of a new political paradigm, sometimes known as the Reagan Consensus.
This is the era in which we live. Like the New Deal before it, the Reagan Consensus has become discredited but has yet to surrender. This is the paradigm inherited by Joe Biden, a centrist Democrat much like Jimmy Carter. Where Carter’s leftist ideology was dying, however, Biden inherits the opportunity to craft a new political landscape.
The question is: will he take it?
The Politics Presidents Make
The political scientist Stephen Skowronek defines American presidents by four essential types, based on their relation to the “regime” they inherit. The presidents we most often cite as “great” are those who come to office opposing a vulnerable regime, creating what Skowronek calls a politics of reconstruction. This is what all presidential candidates promise to be and perhaps genuinely aspire to, but rarely embody.
When presidents oppose a resilient regime, by contrast, what emerges is a politics of preemption in which the leader stays afloat by balancing their independent authority against the political machine. On the other hand, when a president is affiliatedwith a resilient regime, what emerges is a politics of articulation where the leader uses the regime as a springboard to personal triumph. Finally, when a president is affiliated with a vulnerableregime, the result is a politics of disjunction.
Before going further, we should note that Skowronek divides American history into a series of regimes around which presidential politics revolve: Federalist Nationalism (1789-1800); Jeffersonian Democracy (1800-1828); Jacksonian Democracy (1828-1860); Republican Nationalism (1860-1932); and New Deal Liberalism (1932-1980). A regime typically lasts long enough to contain several presidencies, to embody a distinctive political paradigm, and to become outmoded by changing circumstances. Each presidency is defined by its relationship with the regime in which it comes to power.
Skowronek, in The Politics Presidents Make (1993), cites John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter as the embodiments of political disjunction. Critically, the author notes that personal ability had little to do with these failed presidencies. It is the relation to the regime that counts. “One step back from greatness lies the very definition of the impossible leadership situation: a president affiliated with a set of established commitments that have in the course of events been called into question as failed or irrelevant responses to the problems of the day.”
It would be comforting to dismiss Donald Trump’s presidency as a political disjunction, paving the way for a reconstruction under Biden. Sadly, it’s not that simple. Skowronek noted as much in a 2020 interview. The Skowronek model is a useful way to think about politics, but all models are imprecise. One president’s disjunction does not make the next reconstructive. That has generally been the pattern up to now, but times change. Politics of disjunction weaken regimes, but the vulnerable/resilient dichotomy of the Skowronek model may not be applicable to the Reagan Consensus at this juncture.
Skowronek has discussed the possibility that we may be moving toward a permanent politics of preemption (president versus resilient regime). “If reconstruction is gutting the residual institutions of the old order, those institutions are becoming more resilient, harder to destroy,” Skowronek says. “These days you can’t just destroy a central bank, the way Jackson did. Now it’s the backbone of an interdependent industrial economy!” I suspect modern technology, including mass media and social media, may be part of the reason regimes are growing more resilient.
Trump’s presidency was a politics of disjunction in that he was affiliated with the Reagan Consensus for the most part. Disjunctions weaken regimes, but reconstruction can only follow if the next president wills it.
What Politics Will Biden Make?
The Reagan Consensus demolished the foundations of the New Deal. Regimes tend to have a progressive or conservative angle, but angle does not define regime status. More basic premises must be accepted by the bulk of the political spectrum. Bill Clinton realized this with his “third-way Democrat” persona. Obama was also a very capitalist Democrat.
Joe Biden first made his mark during the Reagan Consensus. Neither he nor Kamala Harris was brave enough to discuss taxes on campaign. Now, Biden proposes raising corporate taxes significantly (albeit slowly) to the highest in the developed world. He also wants to increase the top income tax rate to 39.6%. Bear in mind that between WWII and 1980, the top income tax rate never fell below 70%, according to the Bradford Tax Institute.
Like Jimmy Carter, Biden was elected mainly by dint of projecting a persona of sanity amid a growing impression of chaos. Like Carter, he is a Democrat with a center-left agenda, his progressive inclinations balanced against the inner capitalist.
Biden could be (or could attempt to be) a reconstructive leader. The Reagan Consensus was already weakening and was further weakened by his predecessor. The winds of change are blowing again. The New Deal regime was undone by its own duration, gradually exposing the shortcomings of economic interventionism. The Reagan Consensus is approaching a similar reckoning, the drawbacks of corporate deregulation and oligarchization becoming increasingly impossible to ignore.
The next regime will undoubtedly be more interventionist. This can mean different things. Trump cleverly exploited the desire among Americans for government protection by being the only Republican candidate promising to uphold the safety net, but promptly broke that promise. His one interventionist tendency was his hostility to free trade, a policy known as protectionism. I regard protectionism as the conservative manifestation of interventionism, conserving national industries through isolationist and paternalist policies.
The progressive alternative to this kind of intervention is social welfare. The welfare state is one in which the basic needs of citizens are guaranteed, the downward pressures on economic growth are matched by upward pressures against potential freefall, and free, fair competition is not equated with deregulation. Welfare states are not actually socialist but socially democratic.
Biden definitely has some inclination to create such a paradigm. To what extent he is willing to do so remains an open question. Like other late-regime affiliates, he is vulnerable to leftist accusations of conservatism and conservative accusations of liberalism. Foreign and domestic affairs occupy a delicate juncture, in a polarized climate. The parallels with Carter not only cannot but should not be ignored.
“Abstracted from history,” Skowronek writes, “Carter’s tortured relationship to the Democratic establishment might evoke longing for some ideal of ‘responsible’ party government. But that ideal world never existed in America.” Nor did it exist under Obama when Biden was vice president, on which so much of his reputation rests. In order to rebuild America, Biden must be prepared to build a new regime.