Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, 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 views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
President Joe Biden capped off his most productive legislative period thus far with a major decision that could touch the lives of tens of millions of Americans. Using executive action, Biden made headway on a major campaign promise to alleviate the burden of student debt. Under the new plan, Americans who earn less than $125,000 a year will be forgiven $10,000 worth of student debt. Recipients of Pell Grants, which benefit low-income Americans, will be relieved of $20,000.
The cost of higher education has skyrocketed over the course of four decades, and for Americans who have been crushed under the weight of student loans, Biden’s move is a big deal. “It’s about giving people a fair shot, and it’s about the one word America can be defined by – possibilities,” the President said.
Biden’s executive action drew predictable responses. Many Republicans lambasted the plan as a radical move. “President Biden’s student loan socialism is a slap in the face to every family who sacrificed to save for college, every graduate who paid their debt and every American who chose a certain career path or volunteered to serve in our Armed Forces in order to avoid taking on debt,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
A number of centrist Democrats criticized the plan based on claims that it will worsen inflation. Meanwhile, progressive Democrats welcomed the change, but criticized Biden for failing to go far enough to address the burden of student debt. “We have got to do more,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, education, from pre-school through graduate school, must be a fundamental right for all, not a privilege for the wealthy few.”
As has been the case with most of his policy decisions, Biden has continued the tradition of liberal Democratic presidents who have proposed bold ideas before settling on incremental policy outcomes. As we’ve seen with the recent Inflation Reduction Act, for example, Biden has avoided letting the perfect be the enemy of the good – achieving some long-sought Democratic goals like enabling the federal government to negotiate the prices of some drugs under Medicare. He’s built programs based on the expectation that once Democrats move something through Capitol Hill, it will create a basis for more in the future.
For the most part, modern Democratic presidential history has been shaped by this narrative. President Franklin D. Roosevelt backed social insurance programs such as Social Security and unemployment compensation in the 1930s. But these programs excluded many categories of workers, including disproportionate numbers of Black Americans.
Once these programs were in place, FDR assumed that their popularity would lead to the expansion of the benefits to more Americans. When he signed the bill in 1935, Roosevelt said the law “represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.” And ultimately, he was right – what originally covered roughly half of the labor force is now nearly universal.
President Lyndon Johnson took a similar path. Before becoming president, Johnson, as Senate Majority Leader, pushed a watered-down civil rights bill in 1957 that most activists believed to be a betrayal of the cause, so ineffective and weak that it would create the appearance of dealing with racial injustice without doing anything at all.
Johnson pushed back, as Robert Caro recounted in his brilliant book, “Master of the Senate,” insisting that if he could get one civil rights bill through an upper chamber controlled by racist southern Democrats, he would then create a precedent for doing more down the line. Once he was in the White House, Johnson was able to push the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through the House and Senate.
And given the political fallout that ensued after President Harry Truman tried and failed to establish national health insurance, Johnson once again took the incremental approach, focusing instead on the most vulnerable by pushing for Medicare and Medicaid.
The presidential tradition of pragmatic liberalism has both benefits and drawbacks. Presidents who have embraced this strategy can certainly claim substantial legacy-building success. Despite the inevitable compromises that are required to pass legislation, these Presidents have moved the needle when it comes to expanding the role of the federal government. And to their credit, many of these programs, like Medicaid, have grown enormously, and laid the foundation for future reforms.
Given the 50-50 Senate we have today, it’s remarkable that Biden can tout so many new policy initiatives. But progressive critics are not always wrong – a measured approach, with the expectation that Congress will expand or build on a program in the future, doesn’t always match the historical reality. Support for certain legislation can be fleeting and the window of opportunity can close – sometimes, for good.
Take the example of Medicare. When it was passed in 1965, proponents of the limited approach believed it would eventually create the support for a single-payer system for all Americans. Although President Barack Obama was able to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010, the conservatives’ rightward shift, which can be traced back to the Reagan era, meant that national health insurance would never come to be.
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Although candidates love to talk about all the things they will accomplish, the hard reality is that Capitol Hill is always a difficult place to operate. Democratic presidents who seek to expand the reach of the federal government amid the tumultuous terrain of Congress will always be forced to reckon with this dilemma: how much is enough?
Without a doubt, Biden will spend some time celebrating the progress that he has made over the last few months. But the long-term question remains: did the pragmatic, incremental strategy begin the process of tackling the many problems that plague the country or did they provide band-aid solutions that left the underlying sicknesses untreated?