When he takes the presidential oath of office on January 20, Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. will join rare company with presidents who first came to office amidst a national crisis: Abraham Lincoln in 1861, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, and Barack Obama in 2009. Each was elected during a moment of real national emergency. Other presidents have been elected during recessions (Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Warren Harding in 1920) or even wars (likewise, Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and Richard Nixon in 1968). Of course, presidents declared war while in office: Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush. But Lincoln, FDR, and Obama inherited a genuine national crisis the moment they lifted their hand from the Bible at their first inaugural following their election.
Of the three, only Biden arrives with modest Congressional support. The Senate will likely remain under Republican control. The House Democrats have a slim, diminished majority come January. FDR had 58 senators on which to rely. Obama’s majority dropped to 59 by his second year. Biden must face a once-in-century global pandemic and its economic fallout, likely, without a Congress under his party’s control. (Even if the Democrats get to 50 in the Senate, that is a shaky edifice.) While it’s true that good news about a possible vaccine takes some of the edge off the crisis, it is not yet through trials, and its distribution to 330 million Americans (not to mention 7.7 billion global citizens) is an extraordinary task. No one expects the age of masks and anxiety or economic displacement to end soon.
To get a sense of what Biden faces, think of the world of 12 years ago. In 2008, Obama won amid the Great Recession, with both Capitol chambers in his Democratic column. The housing and stock market had tumbled along with the backbone of the housing securitization market, Fannie Mae, which lay in government receivership. Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns were gone. Banks and the auto industry were on life support. The Dow fell under 7000 within a few weeks of his assuming office.
Obama was able to galvanize Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans to pass a stimulus package. While smaller than what he wanted or Democratic economists insisted was needed, it nevertheless provided a life-saving jolt to the economy. Obama had Congressional and Fed backing for assorted policy innovations from Cash for Clunkers to bolster auto sales to direct injection of funds into the automakers to mortgage relief for millions. The new president used the crisis to pass health care reform the following year, barely getting it through the Senate gauntlet when his majority in the chamber dropped to 59. Biden won’t be so fortunate as his boss if that’s the right word. At the moment, Congressional leadership cannot agree on an aid package to stem the coming wave of business foreclosures, personal bankruptcies, and foreclosed mortgages that will come with this winter’s coronavirus spike. Mitch McConnell is unlikely to help this Democratic president any more than he did the last one.
No presidential crisis has been as deserving of the term existential as the one Lincoln faced in March 1865 when he took the presidential oath. Seven states had left the Union by the time he was sworn in at the half-finished Capitol. These Southern states had fled the Union out of fear that the first Republican president was an existential threat to their ownership over four million slaves. As awful as the crisis was for the new president, the departure of so many Democrats from Congress left Lincoln a chorus of “aye” Republican votes in Congress. The House count was 108 Republicans to 44 Democrats, and those who remained were pro-union. Lincoln’s inaugural plea on March 4, 1861, that North and South were “not enemies, but friends” were mocked by the South. The Confederacy was already emerging, primarily led by former members of Congress. (Fatefully, one Tennessee senator who stayed in town as a Union Democrat was the racist Andrew Johnson, who became Lincoln’s vice president in 1865.) Just five weeks after Lincoln took the oath, the Civil War began April 12, when Davis ordered shots fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, held by a Union Army garrison under siege. The Capitol was open, but dark and diminished, so much so that Clara Barton set up a temporary ward for wounded soldiers on the Senate floor when the first blood was spilled in Baltimore later that Spring.
In the sudden storm, Lincoln could count on Congress. He had to do much more than assemble a Cabinet. With approval from the new 37th Congress, Lincoln raised an army, which grew to 225,000 soldiers mobilized by July. He passed a tax bill to fund a war on a larger scale than ever before: $1.5 million a day. Another law gave the government authority to issue paper money. Lincoln was girding for massive modern warfare. He never started fights, and thanks to a supportive Congress, he never lost one.
With the war underway, Lincoln was on easy speaking terms with both the radical abolitionists and his party’s moderates. Before the Senate adjourned for the summer of 1861, it approved a resolution granting Lincoln emergency powers, which he put to use in suspending habeas corpus, a useful war weapon in Baltimore, the nearest city crawling with Southern sympathizers.
In April 1862, Lincoln and the 37th Congress took a step toward outright emancipation. The District of Columbia’s enslaved were freed, for a price, the only example of government compensation for slaveowners. The absence of Southern lawmakers was a good thing for Lincoln in ways beyond the war. The Transcontinental Railroad act, his dream as a railroad lawyer, was passed. So was the Homesteading act, opening up the Western prairie to settlers. Lincoln put higher education on a firm egalitarian footing by introducing land grant colleges. A slew of nation-building progressive legislation came from the Civil War president and his amen Congress.
By January 1, 1863, Lincoln was leaning toward the radicals in his party. Signing the Emancipation Proclamation was all his own. Congress did not have a say, but the legislature did give its consent to allowing Black men to join the Army.
It’s little remembered that inauguration day was moved up to January from March after Franklin Roosevelt took office with the passage of the 20th Amendment. The long interregnum between casting ballots in November and a late Winter inauguration made some sense before telephones and a revolution in transportation. By 1933, it was just destructive dead time, worse than Biden’s travail with Trump and, arguably, worse than Lincoln’s. That’s because economic catastrophe worsened after FDR’s election in the lead up to the inaugural. In Herbert Hoover’s last dismal days, banks all over the United States were closing or on the verge of failing. Could the financial system collapse? On Inauguration Day, the new president closed the banks for four days to steady the ship with his leadership. FDR refused the outgoing president’s 11th-hour plea for joint proclamation on closing the banks to distance himself from the hated Hoover.
Fortunately, FDR was not only blessed with “a first-class temperament,” but an army of congressional allies in 1932 when he engaged in “bold, persistent experimentation” to raise the sunken American economy. During the first Hundred Days, there were nearly 200 more Democrats than Republicans in the House and 23 more in the Senate. (Biden seems to have a margin of four in the House and boasts only at 48 Senators, for now.) The Emergency Banking Act was first rushed onto the Capitol floors and passed handily. Public works projects such as bridge building, art murals adorning post offices, writers exploring folklore and history, rural electrification, a civilian conservation corps (CCC): all arose from the imaginative New Deal president’s brain trust. The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the era’s grandest feats. At first, the CCC was probably closest to FDR’s heart. He described himself as a tree-planter in his Hyde Park home along the Hudson River. In a matter of months, the CCC rounded up employed 275,000 young men across the country. In 1935, an even bigger Congressional mandate allowed FDR to remake the New Deal. The 74th Congress passed, and Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, his most enduring legislation. Having 72 Democrats in the U.S. Senate out of 96 seats helped.
So how can Biden deal best with the bad hand he’s been dealt? He’ll use executive authority where he can bypass a recalcitrant Senate, of course. But Biden will need to be cautious, too, lest his stroke-of-the-pen orders face difficulties in the courts as many of Obama’s did, such as DACA and his recess appointments. He’ll try to find some common-ground issues with the GOP—vaccine distribution, the long-delayed infrastructure week, and so on. Mostly he’ll need to put his agencies to work. A Justice Department with a muscular Antitrust Division and a Federal Trade Commission that scrutinizes mergers and then blocks them could prove a way to broaden his support and repair the economy not only through the dangerous shoals of the pandemic but over the long term. In some ways, Biden is not unlike Truman in 1946, who was filling out Roosevelt’s fourth term. Republicans picked up 55 House seats in that first, post-war election (Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy were among the winners) and 12 in the Senate. He had little chance of getting much passed. But he did take strong action integrating the military and prosecuting the Cold War, even if his bid for national health insurance died as painfully as Bill and Hillary’s. But America in 1946 had won the war and had half the world’s GOP. Biden will have to make do with much less—a divided, disease-ravaged, recession-plagued nation that even the greatest crisis presidents of the past might have a hard time rallying.