The President and the Past

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On January 19, President Biden held a press conference in which he said:

Can you think of any other President that has done as much in one year? Name one for me. . . . I’m serious. You guys talk about how nothing has happened. I don’t think there’s been much on any incoming President’s plate that’s been a bigger menu than the plate I had given to me. I’m not complaining. I knew that running in.

And the fact of the matter is, we got an awful lot done — an awful lot done, and there’s more to get done.

There have been a lot of bizarre moments in Biden’s public life, but I think this may be the most bizarre. And while commentary abounds on the failures of his first year in office, I’ve seen none about his weird take on presidential history. It isn’t surprising — history is one of the last things that American political commentators care about.

Biden wanted to emphasize the importance of history, but he ended up showing that he doesn’t know history himself.

 

Unfortunately, that isn’t true of Biden. He cares very much about history. As you may recall, during a 2020 campaign event he asked a good question, one we might all ask.

“Why in God’s name don’t we teach history in history classes?” said a facemask-wearing Biden, leaning in toward one attendee to emphasize his point.

His evidence, however, turned out to be: “A Black man invented the light bulb, not a white guy named Edison, OK?” There’s no reason why that couldn’t be true, but it isn’t. Biden wanted to emphasize the importance of history, but he ended up showing that he doesn’t know history himself.

Biden doesn’t just cherrypick his history; he’s interested in the vast sweep and significance of it all — and that’s a problem too. “Can you think of any other President that has done as much in one year? . . . I don’t think there’s been much on any incoming President’s plate that’s been a bigger menu than the plate I had given to me.” Beneath the weird syntax is a serious (“I’m serious”) historical claim: Biden is the greatest do-er in presidential history.

Biden spent a lifetime in the nation’s capital, surrounded by memorials of the past. And the result is — he knows nothing about it.

 

Let’s consider the evidence.

  • In the first year of his presidency, George Washington created the executive branch of the new federal government, appointing its officers, setting its policies, and establishing its customs and mores.
  • In the first year of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln summoned the vast armed forces of the Union and decided the grand strategy of the Civil War. His armies detached West Virginia from Virginia and fought their way into Tennessee, the crucial base for the conquest of the South. His party passed two important tariff acts and the first national income tax. (Important note: I’m talking about getting things “done,” not about whether those things were good or bad.)
  • In the first year of his presidency, Woodrow Wilson signed the Revenue Act of 1913, which cut tariffs and instituted a national income tax. He also signed the Federal Reserve Act, initiating the Federal Reserve System, a major foundation of the modern state.
  • In his first year in office, Franklin Roosevelt created the hundreds of New Deal programs that embodied the first American welfare state.

Biden, I submit, did somewhat less in one year than Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt. But what about presidents who have not been deified?

  • In the first year of his second (noncontinuous term), the year of the great financial Panic, Grover Cleveland stabilized the currency and saved the nation from economic collapse.
  • In the first year of his presidency, James K. Polk signed the act annexing Texas to the Union and neared completion of the agreement with Britain that peacefully separated what is now Oregon and Washington from what is now British Columbia.
  • In the first year of his presidency, Franklin Pierce reached agreement with Mexico for the United States to acquire the 30,000 square miles of the Gadsden Purchase, constituting much of what is now Arizona and New Mexico. By the end of the year, Commodore Matthew Perry, acting under the president’s command, had arrived in Japan to reopen, after 200 years, regular trade relations between that country and the West.

It would be tedious to continue. I’m not sure that President Tyler did more than Biden, but there’s a case to be made.

Evidence is lacking on whether Joe Biden has ever read a book. We know that he spent 36 years as a senator and eight years as vice president. In other words, he spent a lifetime in the nation’s capital, surrounded by memorials of the past. And the result is — he knows nothing about it and sees nothing in it except a stimulus for his gluttony for fame. If anyone wants to analyze the role of education, formal or informal, in the production of America’s current leadership, this may be of interest.

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