fbpx Presidents, Politics, and Economic Growth: From FDR to Joe Biden | Harvard Kennedy School
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Richard Parker

Lecturer in Public Policy


Is Joe Biden a “transformative president”?  Millions of Democrats—and a cascading list of smart political analysts--suddenly think he might be.  But what exactly IS a “transformative president”?  And what will a new “transformative era” mean for you and your generation?

Presidents aren’t like most Americans:  we’ve elected almost four dozen, and they’ve all been white men save one (and before the Civil War a dozen were slaveowners).  Nearly all were Protestant—and more than half came from two tiny denominations.  Besides Biden, only JFK was Catholic, and no Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or atheist has ever been elected (or even been nominated.)

All those men entered the White House thinking HE’D be “transformative”— ego and will, after all, are prerequisite for the office.  Yet presidential scholars say only six or seven deserve real “transformer” status.

To understand why—and why Joe Biden MAY be America’s next transformative president, we’ll first look back to those who were, starting with Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln, as America grew in size, population, and power.  We’ll then study how America’s “modern presidency” emerged under FDR, why government swelled as well (from 5% of GDP a century ago to over 40% today).   You’ll discover why there are “long cycles” between transformers, and how deep and enduring forces in politics and economics, race and religion, ethnicity, geography, technology and natural resources, ideology and party coalitions determined each of these cycles.

A century ago they set the Roosevelt Cycle in motion, determined when it would end, and then how a transformative Reagan Cycle succeeded it. You’ll learn about the patterns within these cycles: why Eisenhower and Nixon look like Democrats by today’s GOP standards, and why Clinton and Obama resemble liberal Republicans from the Roosevelt era; why Truman and George H.W. Bush ended up one-termers; why George W. Bush invoked Reagan much the way LBJ invoked FDR; and why cycles end with self-proclaimed “non-politicians” from the business world like Hoover, Carter, and Trump promise to drain the swamp but fail—and how that failure sets up the next transformative cycle.

You’ll also learn how each of those cycles has reshaped our ideas about democracy and our rights, about the role of government in economic growth, opportunity, and equality, and why the American presidency is now the single most powerful job in the world!

You’ll also get to see how presidents in different cycles have sculpted, balanced, and energized powerful demands from both ordinary citizens and concentrated economic and political interests.

Finally you’ll learn how after World War II the political and economic, cultural and financial, military and diplomatic roles that the US took on as “global hegemon” intersected those ideas of democracy, equality, rights, and power as the country faced seemingly-novel but in fact deeply recurrent challenges—and why for your generation, the challenges of China, climate change, and global economic inequality will drive the cycle in which you will live.

By semester’s end, I promise that you will have a large and deeply-informed new way to view not only the world today but the world that lies ahead—and, more importantly, what you can do to change it.