Biden should govern like a Roosevelt. But Teddy, not Franklin.

The hardworking, taxpaying middle-class families of this country need someone who will provide consumer protection.
Pocketbook issues, including medical debt, will be important in the November election. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Pocketbook issues, including medical debt, will be important in the November election. (Dreamstime/TNS)

The recent New York Times/Sienna polling on the Biden-Trump race was confusing: Voters want major reforms of our economic systems and they support a “back-to-normal” candidate. How to square the circle? I suspect the answer lies in the widely perceived corruption of our institutions — public and private. I’m reminded of how progressive Democrats pushed President Biden to “go big” on social programs and to be more “like FDR.”

I think they had the wrong Roosevelt. Biden should look to TR, not FDR.

Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, was part of the original progressive movement that took on predatory, corrupt corporate monopolies and made significant reforms to renew democratic institutions, widely believed to be corrupted by machine politics, in the beginning of the 20th century. The parallels between the Gilded Age and our own are quite striking.

The original progressives lived in an era in which corporate “robber barons” had accumulated stunning wealth through monopoly or quasi-monopoly practices and then plowed their wealth into control over the political process. Today, instead of Standard Oil, Carnegie Steel and railroad conglomerates that built their wealth during industrialization, we have companies like Amazon, Google, Apple and Pfizer that have built their wealth as we transitioned to an information and knowledge economy.

Teddy Roosevelt was not unsympathetic to businesses — he came from a wealthy New York family — but he distinguished between those that continued to keep an eye on the public good and respect their customers and employees and those that had simply become avaricious and predatory. He promised voters a “Square Deal” and protection from corrupt corporations and political machines. Some of his great achievements came from enforcing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, reinvigorating the Interstate Commerce Commission and establishing consumer protections through organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration.

The equivalent problems in our era are everywhere, though, of course, they have their own twists. I have written before about middle-class, suburban voters and their frustrations with paying the bills. We deal constantly with the nicks and cuts of fees and add-ons, from our credit cards to banks to airlines. I don’t know a single bill-paying adult who has not had to fight with an insurance company — health, homeowners auto — or some other large corporation (banks, telecom companies, utilities) over some kind of payment, with little obvious recourse if things go sideways.

Credit: Nathan Posner

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Credit: Nathan Posner

I recently called an internet service provider, and, as I navigated through their elaborate phone tree, my call was dropped at least four times, only to be told finally that the “inside wire protection” fee that I had paid for more than a decade didn’t pertain to any actual inside wire. All of this for terrible broadband service where there is no competition.

But this story is trivial compared to the life-or-death, financial survival v. ruin negotiations that friends of mine have had to negotiate with health care and health insurance companies. These particular industries are bankrupting families, other businesses and our country itself.

Medical debt is one of the leading causes of bankruptcy in our country, and an aging population combined with rising health care costs is one of the largest drivers of our national debt. When I was in Congress, we made some solid if limited progress on this problem by passing the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022, which allowed Medicare to negotiate the prices of selected prescription drugs. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that this will save seniors hundreds in out of pocket expenses, and taxpayers will save up to $286 billion over 10 years.

Tackling these problems is highly popular despite the deep-pocketed special interests on the other side. I was on the receiving end of millions in negative ads attacking me for supporting this policy, financed by the American Action Network, a dark-money organization backed by Big Pharma.

The challenges of corporate consolidation and dominance of our lives is everywhere. But just to list a few: big agriculture has squeezed out family farms, in some cases bringing efficiencies but in others driving up food prices or forcing suppliers out of business; Big Tech has brought about all sorts of innovations but also used the popularity of its platforms to try to establish quasi-monopolistic dominance — and raising privacy concerns by collecting vast quantities of our personal data; big Wall Street investment firms are buying up affordable housing all across Atlanta’s suburbs, raising rents and often acting like absentee slumlords.

The Biden administration has taken important steps to improve federal antitrust oversight, most notably by appointing much more aggressive leadership to the Federal Trade Commission and to the Department of Justice. This effort has drawn praise from populist Trump Republicans, including Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio, who no doubt see the policy need as well as the political opportunity in leaning into a Teddy Roosevelt agenda. There is a lot more that can be done — and some of this must be tied to democratic reforms to break the stranglehold of money and polarizing politics on our institutions.

I suspect one of the mistakes politicians make is to assume that pragmatic, moderate voters want the status quo. That is not the case. We all see the corruption of our institutions. The hardworking, taxpaying middle-class families of this country are looking for a president who will take on special interests of all stripes who take advantage of consumers, suck the federal government dry and flood our political system with money. People are looking for a president who will “speak softly but carry a big stick.”