Opinion: To beat the Dems, Biden must answer a question posed by both FDR and Trump

Editor’s note: Julian Zelizer, political analyst for CNN, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. See more reviews on CNN.


Democrats should feel good about the latest polls. Former President Donald Trump and the Supreme Court appear to have given Democrats a chance to reverse, if not reverse, a historic midterm trend that has cost the president’s party heavy losses. If polls are to be believed, Democrats could hold on to their majorities in the House and Senate, making 2022 a rare example of the party in power.

The latest data from a New York Times/Siena College poll shows Democrats are in the running, with 46 percent of registered voters saying they support their party’s congressional nominee in their district, compared to 44 percent of Republicans. This is a dramatic turnaround, as analysts were predicting a “red wave” at the beginning of the year. While President Joe Biden’s legislative successes (notably, the Surge Inflation Act) have been important, easing gas prices, the Trump scandal, and the Supreme Court’s Roe v. The anger over the decision to overrule Wade has put the GOP on the defensive. .

For the Dems, highlighting a radicalized Republican Party with a leader in serious legal and political trouble will be a key element of their success. That shouldn’t be particularly difficult, given that Trump has endorsed numerous reelection candidates and made headlines in response to the Justice Department’s investigation into his handling of government records.

But being an anti-Trump party will not be enough. If Biden wants to shape the political narrative in favor of Democrats in Congress, he will have to do more to tell the country the story of his administration.

Telling the story of a presidency is part of what leaders do. When there’s an overwhelming legislative outcome, as we’ve seen now in the Biden administration, presidents have worked hard to connect the dots for voters to let them know how the new laws will positively affect their lives. It can also be a branding exercise, as illustrated by President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”

When FDR accepted the presidential nomination in 1932, he promised a “new deal for the American people.” The phrase remained a powerful frame, even though voters could understand what he was trying to do, as he greatly expanded the reach of government in American life. Each new program not only alleviated the devastating effects of the Great Depression, but the administration also sought to create a new level of security and support – through unemployment benefits, farm assistance, social security, unions and more – for American workers.

In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson was looking for a way to explain his goals for the country. As he embarked on one of the largest expansions of government since the New Deal, Johnson understood that the language used would be important. He enlisted the help of Princeton history professor Eric Goldman and orator Richard Goodwin, who helped him coin and coin the phrase “Great Society.”

Through a “Great Society,” Johnson offered a vision of how the federal government could help each individual become more self-sufficient and independent, ultimately giving them the tools they needed to thrive in a growing economy. As LBJ said at the University of Michigan in 1964, the Great Society “is based on the abundance and freedom of all. It requires an end to poverty and racial injustice, which we are fully committed to in our time. But this is only the beginning. The Great Society is the knowledge of every child to enrich his mind and enlarge his talent. it is a place where they can find it. It is a place where leisure is a welcome opportunity to build and reflect, not a dreaded cause of boredom and restlessness… The Great Society is not a safe harbor, a place of rest, a final goal, a finished work. It is a constantly renewed challenge.” in short, his policies would help make an already prosperous nation better and include everyone.

Other presidents have relied on slogans to convey their stories. President Harry Truman had a “Fair Deal” and of course Trump sold his agenda around “Making America Great Again”. Legislative leaders have also used it, for example when Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994 by promising a “contract with America.”

These slogans give Americans a concrete way to understand what these politicians stand for, and their repetition helps to amplify the political victories won.

What is Biden’s vision? Despite legislative advances on Covid-19, infrastructure, health care, climate change and more, the answer to this question remains unclear. It has tried different approaches and appeals with varying degrees of success, whether it is building a better democracy or defending democracy at home and abroad.

What is clear is that the President has opted for what can be called a public investment society. He sees that the federal government has a big role to play in providing resources to areas of the economy and society that need more support. The goal is to help the middle class grow, secure the future of our planet and preserve our democratic process.

Telling this story and providing Americans with an easy way to understand what he is doing and what his party wants to do would be very helpful as Democrats hit the campaign trail in the coming weeks. Putting his vision into clear, concise terms could make all the difference in the midterm elections for Biden and the Democrats. Warning about the dangers of a radicalized Republican Party is a powerful message, but it’s also about offering a path to a better America.