Former US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s call to arms against recession is resonating today, but his followers would do well to consider all its implications
Top of the political class’s reading list on both sides of the Atlantic at Christmas was Cambridge historian Anthony Badger’s slim, brilliant volume, FDR: The First Hundred Days. In Chicago, the impatient administration of US president-elect Barack Obama has made no secret of its determination to emulate Roosevelt’s 1933 blitzkrieg on Washington. Similarly, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has anointed Badger’s history his book of the year.
“A classic example of how a work of history can illuminate the issues we’re dealing with today,” he said. “The imagination and humanity at the heart of some of the great New Deal innovations changed American politics for ever and shaped the future of progressive politics across the world.”
And the inspiration of the New Deal is already shaping British policy in the struggle against the recession. But Badger’s account ends on June 16, 1933, and historians today are still debating the long-term merits of Roosevelt’s economic strategy.
Brown’s lesson from the past is a historic gamble.
The situation could hardly have been bleaker in March 1933 when Roosevelt assumed the presidency. At least a quarter, but probably a third, of US workers were unemployed. A thousand families a day were losing their homes. Farmers were desperate. The stock market had failed to recover from the 1929 crash. In 1932 alone 1,500 banks went bust. But, in an early taste of the audacity of hope, the patrician, polio-stricken but politically mesmeric Roosevelt told the US it had “nothing to fear but fear itself.” He pledged himself “to a new deal for the American people. This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms.”
With the help of his so-called “Brains Trust,” Roosevelt unleashed an avalanche of legislation in his first 100 days. If politicians in London and Washington feel they have recently been bounced into unwise business bailouts, Congress was given just 43 minutes to read Roosevelt’s bank bill. In its wake came further bills on regulating the stock exchange, prescribing a minimum wage, subsidy packages for farmers, underwriting home ownership and, above all, a program of public works.
This signature employment policy instantly captured the popular imagination. And the program forms part of our vision of the modern US. This is Roosevelt’s progressive, esthetic and pioneering republic of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the “tree army” that planted 3 billion trees and built the log cabins and park campsites, that so sparsely but elegantly symbolize the outdoor US. More than that, the US infrastructure was transformed during the 1930s, from New York’s Lincoln Tunnel to the San Francisco Zoo to a new generation of reservoirs, roads and harbors.
For Obama, the attractions of this narrative are obvious. US President George W. Bush can be cast as Roosevelt’s inept predecessor, Herbert Hoover, whose voluntarist, laissez-faire philosophy did nothing to address the human costs of the Depression. Indeed, Bush has stuck closely to the Republican mantra of government being the problem rather than the solution — of which there remains no more chilling edifice than the ruins of New Orleans. Whereas the Federal Emergency Management Agency once stood as an effective arm of the state assisting the citizen in times of crisis, the Bush administration so denigrated its capacity that when hurricane Katrina called, the Big Easy was left to fend for itself.