By Froma Harrop / syndicated columnist
Joe Biden’s multitrillion-dollar plans to revive the economy, fix America’s infrastructure and ease poverty have spawned comparisons between him and Franklin D. Roosevelt. At the 100-day mark of the Biden presidency, David Gergen, who has advised presidents of both parties, wrote, “Biden is off to an excellent start;arguably, one of the best since Roosevelt.”
And Biden hasn’t discouraged such talk. He now has a giant portrait of FDR in the Oval Office, right across from the Resolute Desk.
But while there may be likenesses between those two presidents’ agendas, the less glamorous Harry Truman also deserves inspirational face time. Truman and Biden both came from modest small-town origins. Unlike the aristocratic Roosevelt, they knew firsthand about middle-class striving.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Biden agenda seeks to recreate the Golden Age for the American middle class: the postwar years of 1947 through 1973, when productivity doubled but so did the median compensation of full-time workers. Truman was instrumental in launching it.
Truman understood that the well-being of workers depended on factors beyond the magic of the market. Widespread prosperity needed a third player in addition to business and labor. That player was a government willing to impose social norms through tax policy, the minimum wage and protection for organized labor.
As World War II was ending, impatient workers launched destabilizing strikes. And so, in November 1945, Truman held a conference to create a new labor policy through which postwar abundance would be broadly shared. The participants came from business, the labor movement and — at Truman’s insistence — government.
The business community came eagerly on board. As Eric Johnston, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told the conference: “Labor unions are woven into our economic pattern of American life, and collective bargaining is a part of the democratic process. I say recognize this fact not only with our lips but with our hearts.”
Truman proposed a national health care plan, which didn’t happen, and higher taxes on the top incomes, which did. Biden’s agenda both strengthens the Affordable Care Act and seeks to raise taxes on the top incomes.
Unlike Roosevelt’s New Deal, Truman’s Fair Deal took a strong stance on civil rights. New Deal programs broadly discriminated against Blacks. The National Recovery Administration, for example, gave preferences to white job seekers and allowed lower pay scales for Blacks.
Roosevelt appointed a few Blacks to token jobs. Truman put nonwhites in positions of real power, notably William Henry Hastie, the first African American federal appellate judge.
Biden just announced a racially diverse slate of judicial nominees. It includes sending Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, considered a springboard for the Supreme Court.
Biden is pursuing racial equity in some controversial ways. The covid-19 relief bill includes a $5 billion fund for minority farmers only. And the infrastructure package says that 40 percent of the benefits of clean energy must go to “disadvantaged communities.” How that would work is unclear.
The offshoring of American jobs and technological change of course accelerated workers’ loss of economic security; and helped end the Golden Age. But the ditching of norms that only government could enforce also played a part.
Ronald Reagan cut taxes on the rich. Then George W. Bush did, and then Donald Trump. The federal minimum wage remains stuck at $7.25 an hour. In 1973, it was equivalent to $9.81 in today’s dollars.
Biden seems to be summoning his inner Harry Truman and bringing back the third player. In assuring a stable and happy middle class, the market has a job to do, but so does government.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at email@example.com.