Comparing Biden’s Mandate to FDR’s and LBJ’s

Charlie "Chuck" Cook
October 14, 2021

It is baffling how oblivious many Democrats seem to be, not only of the political dangers they face in the midterm elections, but how they continue to exacerbate their problems. Indeed, they seem intent on maximizing their challenges. They seem so confident about the wisdom and righteousness of their cause, much like some on the other side of the aisle; enough to wonder whether politics has become religion for many partisans, with having faith no matter what a central value.

After Democrats passed the COVID relief plan in March, New York Times columnist David Brooks called Joe Biden a “transformational” president. And that was before Biden and congressional Democrats proposed their twin infrastructure and social-spending plans, which would clock in at nearly $5 trillion together. Times congressional correspondent Jonathan Weisman called it “the most significant expansion of the nation’s safety net since the war on poverty in the 1960s ... legislation that would touch virtually every American’s life, from conception to aged infirmity.” The number of journalists and other observers who likened the plan pushed by Biden and many congressional Democrats to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society are too many to mention.

Yet Biden’s ambitions came without the mandate that FDR and LBJ enjoyed. Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover by a 17-point margin (57 to 40 percent), carrying 42 states. Johnson won 44 states (plus D.C.) in his still larger, 23-point (61 to 39 percent) win over Barry Goldwater just over three decades later. Winning the presidency would be a “BFD,” as Biden might put it, under any circumstances, but his 4.5-point win doesn't quite hold a candle to those of his Democratic predecessors.

But even those numbers obscure how close last November’s presidential election really was. Just as in 2016, five states were decided by 1.5 percentage points or less. Biden won four of them—Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Georgia—effectively putting him over the top. North Carolina was the one state that was extremely close that did not fall to Biden.

Trump was born under that same lucky star in 2016, winning four states by 1.5 points or less—Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida. Hillary Clinton won only New Hampshire by a similarly tiny margin. The point is that last November’s presidential election was not a jaw-dropping mandate, by any stretch of the imagination.

So what about Democrats in Congress? How big is their mandate to do historic things? In the 1932 election, Democrats below FDR on the ticket scored a net gain of 11 seats in the Senate, eventually reaching 59 seats in the then 96-member upper chamber. Over on the House side, Democrats picked up a whopping 97 seats, going from 216 to 313.

In 1964, with LBJ at the top, I suppose someone could say that Democrats “only” gained two Senate seats, but they already held 66 seats. In the House, Democrats gained 37 seats, going from 258 to 295 seats.

In the 2020 cycle, Biden’s party netted three seats in the Senate, from 47 to 50 seats, while dropping 11 seats in the House. It works, but it’s no mandate for doing big, historic things.

Just ask Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who won “lonely landslides” in 1972 and 1984, respectively. Nixon carried 49 states and won by 23 points (61 to 38 percent), but Republicans actually lost two seats in the Senate and only picked up 12 House seats. Reagan prevailed by 10 points (51 to 41 percent), but the GOP lost two Senate seats as well and gained just 14 House seats. For a party to have a mandate to do big things, they have to win elections big.

Democrats are trying to push a New Deal-like agenda without FDR’s landslide victory and with 91 fewer House seats than FDR had, and nine fewer Senate seats. In terms of replicating a Great Society-like program, Democrats now have 73 fewer House seats than the 295 Johnson had, and 18 fewer Senate seats. They are pretending they have political capital in the bank when the reality is, they are overdrawn.

When a party takes charge of the presidency, House, and Senate, at first they only have partial ownership of pre-existing problems and issues facing the country. But with each passing month, their ownership stake goes up. By this point, they own it.

Parties taking over have two basic dangers. The first is overreaching, going further than those voters in the middle can stomach. The second danger is appearing to be ineffective or even incompetent.

Right now, President Biden is leaking badly on immigration and the Mexican border, the Afghanistan pullout, and the coronavirus. The economy is looking very soft. Whenever it gets worse, his ship gets closer to sinking.

Democrats pushed for way too much without having the political capital to make it stick. It’s killing them on overreach and it is killing them on competence. If misreading a mandate is a sin in politics, pretending that you have one when you don’t is a mortal sin.