The (potentially) transformative legacy of Joe Biden

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are not necessarily parallel to the views of Bellarmine College Preparatory.

written by our collaborators at Bellarmine Political Review

by Ilesh Sundar ’26

In March of 2021, President Joe Biden met with a group of historians to discuss his presidential legacy. Fresh after signing the $1.9T American Rescue Plan Act, he was hailed as the next FDR or LBJ — a president who would fundamentally alter the course of the world’s history.

In hindsight, that notion might’ve been a little silly.

In the year following that meeting, Biden oversaw the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, presided over a resurgence of COVID-19, and witnessed his signature $2.2T climate change and social spending bill — the Build Back Better Act — crumble under the whims of Senator Joe Manchin.

The narrative-driven media swiftly responded, portraying the President as a hapless septuagenarian (now octogenarian!) who embodies Jimmy Carter more than Franklin Roosevelt.

Make no mistake: our current President isn’t FDR or LBJ. But over the past twenty-two months, he’s set himself up to be a consequential president nonetheless.

Let’s take a look at his legislative record. He’s managed to sign into law:

  • American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, a $1.9T stimulus bill
  • Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, a $1.2T bill with $550B of new spending
  • CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, a $280B industrial policy bill
  • PACT Act of 2022, a $280B veterans’ benefits bill
  • Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, a $740B climate, health, and tax bill with $500B of spending

Adding that all up, it’s about $3.75 trillion dollars of money designed to reshape the country. What’s more impressive is that Biden managed to guide these laws through an evenly divided Senate and a razor-thin House majority. (For reference, President Obama had sixty Senate seats and 257 House seats.)

Then again, presidential legacies aren’t indexed to Congressional majorities; presidents are compared to one another regardless. But Biden still passes there.

Every president has his signature bill — the one law that transformed America the most. Let’s look through those as well.

  • FDR: Social Security Act of 1935. This is a no-brainer.
  • LBJ: Civil Rights Act of 1964. This one’s also a no-brainer.
  • Clinton: Either the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, which contributed to the roaring economy of the ’90s, or the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which guaranteed Americans unpaid leave.
  • George W. BushThe Bush Tax Cuts (EGTRRA and JGTRRA)
  • Obama: Affordable Care Act. This one’s also obvious.
  • Trump: Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017

And then we arrive at Biden.

Is Biden’s signature law the American Rescue Plan (ARP), his largest bill? It was impressive, no doubt. Democratic lawmakers avoided the mistakes of the inadequate 2009 stimulus, which led to a slow and painful recovery from the Great Recession, by producing the strongest economic recovery in 2021 among developed nations while causing less than three percentage points of inflation. But signature bills are designed to lay the groundwork for the future — and temporary stimulus bills usually don’t cut it.

Is it the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), then? Again, probably not. It’s a bill with $550B of spending to save our nation’s crumbling infrastructure — nothing to laugh at, for sure — but compared to the Affordable Care Act? Yeah, no.

It has to be the Inflation Reduction Act. According to Robinson Meyer’s summary of a Credit Suisse report,

“So many people and businesses will use those tax credits that the IRA’s total spending is likely to be more than $800 billion, double what the CBO projects. And because federal spending tends to catalyze private investment, that could send total climate spending across the economy to roughly $1.7 trillion over the next 10 years.”

$1.7 trillion. That’s a lot of money. Indeed, in another twenty years, we could look back and pinpoint the Inflation Reduction Act as the singular law that transformed the economy onto a path of decarbonization.

A decarbonized economy is surely as significant, if not more, than guaranteeing health care for millions of Americans. If Obama’s legacy was health care, Biden’s will be the climate.

None of this is guaranteed, though. As Meyer explains,

“The IRA is most likely to stumble because America still struggles with building out its energy infrastructure: The country might not be able to get government approval to permit enough power lines, green infrastructure, and carbon-injection wells for the law to matter, the bank said. This risk is all the more heightened now that Senator Joe Manchin’s permitting-reform bill…has failed.”

But if most things go in the right direction for the President, he will be remembered as the man who kickstarted our transition to clean energy. And while that may not be as impressive as “saved us from the Great Depression” or “ended segregation nationwide,” it’s pretty darn good anyway.

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