President, agent of change: breakers and builders

There is an old Yiddish saying: “The only person who likes change is a wet baby”. Change can be scary. Old ways are abandoned for new ways of thinking and being. Things we once knew become obsolete and we have to learn new and challenging things. Our security blankets are ripped from us and we wonder if we can keep up.

In politics, the challenge posed by change was articulated by Niccolo Machiavelli who, in The prince, noted that “there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, more uncertain of its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things”. And yet, change is often necessary and sometimes beneficial. The only certain thing is change, and if we don’t adapt to new situations, we risk being left behind.

In the American system, the president is the chief agent of change. Presidents are the defenders of the status quo, the challengers of orthodoxy, the sources of stability and the vectors of change. Some demolish, others build. Old commands should be dropped, new commands should be established.

A cycle of stagnation and change characterizes the American political system. There is a season for everything, and seasons of change demand bold presidential leadership. Our system of government can be stagnant, moribund, ossified. Only a president can exert the necessary pressure to put this system into action.

This cycle of change stems from a predicate (an external threat, a technological threat, a new challenge, for example) and leads to an opening of our ossified system, then a leader proposes an alternative to the status quo, voters can align with that leader, then, if competent and armed with a majority in Congress, that president may be able to push for change. But this cycle of stasis or change means we either have a burst of activity or a stalemate – sprint or stand still. So we suffer from a Goldilocks dilemma: change is either too hot or too cold; we can’t get it right.

The Great Depression of 1929 shattered citizens’ ties to the status quo, and demands for change, sometimes drastic, were in the air. This predicate opened the door for Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats to come to power, and armed with a large majority in Congress and facing mild Republican opposition, FDR enacted bold changes and remade the system. He created both the welfare state and the administrative state, and vast changes were imposed.

The Cold War was another such external event that drove change. The new threat from the Soviet Union enabled Harry S. Truman to invent the national security state. In the 1960s, the ambitious leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the impetus of the civil rights movement gave Lyndon Johnson the political cover and support for broad change through Great Society programs. The September 11 attack gave George W. Bush the fuel to create a counter-terrorism state.

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All of these changes were a response to events – to a predicate that opened a door to power – and the presidents were proposing bold agendas to meet these challenges. Where are we today in this stasis/change nexus?

Today, all national politics revolves around the brutal choice of Trump or Biden. Republicans are afraid to challenge Trump for party control, and Democrats don’t have a stable of rivals who could pose a serious threat to Biden. Whether we like it or not, our choice is between The disrupter and The Incrementalist. In this sense, Donald Trump is the radicalwhile Biden plays the role of conservative.

Donald J. Trump is a classic troublemaker. He knows how to tear things down. But he doesn’t know how to rebuild them. Take Obamacare (ACA) as an example. For five years, he railed against Obamacare, promising to “repeal it and replace it” with “a beautiful thing.” And he tried and tried to destroy Obamacare, but only marginally succeeded. However, he never offered a serious replacement for Obamacare. Likewise, he spent years denouncing NATO as obsolete, but never built an international coalition to replace it. He wanted to drain the swamp and destroy the deep state. But where did he want to take us then?

Joe Biden, meanwhile, is a classic incrementalist. Its agenda is twofold: first, to consolidate democracy across the world in the face of right-wing populist challenges; and second, to demonstrate that in direct opposition to Trump’s message, he intends to prove that liberal democracy (rule of law, limited government, individual rights, checks and balances) box work for the people. In support of this, Biden led a coalition against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, built NATO (adding Sweden and Finland), and backed democracies abroad.

At home, Biden’s “small” reforms have made things better by handing out COVID vaccines, lowering unemployment, passing a veterans bill, a bill encouraging domestic microchip production, the funding for infrastructure, health care expansion, climate legislation, prescription drug cost changes and corporate tax increases – and all with an overwhelming majority in the House and a 50/50 split in the Senate. Impressive to say the least. But is it enough?

More disruption and chaos, or more incrementalism and minor changes? We’ve tried them both, and while Trump’s way is extremely more exciting and interesting, Biden’s way is more secure and stable. The 2022 and 2024 elections will offer stark contrasts and clear choices. Are we going to tear down a corrupt and self-interested system, or build back better?

This article originally appeared on History News Network.

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