America's Crises Would Be Daunting for Any President-Elect. But History Can Teach Biden to Navigate Them

tags: Great Depression, Joe Biden, Franklin Roosevelt, 2020 Election

Jon Meacham is the author of Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.

As the shadows lengthened, Franklin Roosevelt‘s mind returned to the beginning. At his fourth Inaugural, held on Saturday, Jan. 20, 1945—the President had less than three months to live—FDR recalled the words of his old prep school headmaster, Endicott Peabody, who often remarked, “Things in life will not always run smoothly. Sometimes we will be rising toward the heights—then all will seem to reverse itself and start downward. The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward.” Or so FDR and generations of Americans have hoped.

One of those forward-looking Americans is now the President-elect of the United States. The task awaiting Joe Biden in Washington is immense; arguably, he faces the most crises to confront a single President since FDR took office in 1933. There is the pandemic, the attendant economic and cultural damage, enduring racial tension, a changing climate, a riven electorate and diminished faith in institutions to respond to any of it. Can Biden pull enough of us together to address at least a few of these issues at a time of sulfurous partisanship?

History is helpful here. Division is, in fact, more the rule than the exception in American life. North vs. South; industrial vs. agrarian; isolationist vs. internationalist; religious vs. secular—we’re a big, complicated, disputatious country. And close elections are common. Biden comes to office with a larger popular-vote percentage than Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon in 1968, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump. The margin is in line with Ronald Reagan’s in 1980, George W. Bush’s in 2004 and Barack Obama’s in 2012.

The Biden win, then, is fully within the mainstream of presidential victories in the post–World War II era. The difference is that in addition to facing a particularly partisan nation, Biden has a predecessor determined to delegitimize the election itself. And so temperament, which is always vital, is perhaps even more important to the success of the approaching presidency.


From my time with Biden, I can tell you this: by experience and by disposition, the President-elect is hardly a polarizing figure. His decades in the Senate and his eight years as Vice President have given him the political virtues of empathy (of seeing why the other side feels the way it does) and of pragmatism (of trying to give the other side a face-saving way to compromise).


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