David B. Woolner

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow

Recent Posts by David B. Woolner

  • Remembering Social Security's Roots on Its 75th Birthday

    Aug 4, 2010David B. Woolner

    ida-may-fuller-150Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past. **Photo: Ida May Fuller receives the first Social Security check.

    ida-may-fuller-150Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past. **Photo: Ida May Fuller receives the first Social Security check.

    On August 14, 2010, one of the New Deal's most famous and enduring programs, Social Security, will celebrate its 75th anniversary. While the debate over the role of government rages and deficit hawks advocate cuts to Social Security benefits to trim the federal deficit, Social Security once again finds itself in the public limelight. To gain a better understanding of Social Security, it is instructive to look back at how the act came into being and what kind of support it received when it was first proposed.

    When Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, the plight of the aged and unemployed in the United States was grim beyond all description. With no unemployment insurance and private charities overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis, millions suffered a level of economic deprivation that is hard to imagine today. This was especially true for the elderly, where only 15 percent of the population was covered by private pension plans. Age discrimination, lack of adequate health care, and other factors had reduced employment among older men from roughly 70 percent in 1870 to roughly 33 percent in 1930. For women, especially those who had lost their husbands, things were even harder, as it is estimated that only 8.1 percent of older women held steady jobs in that year. As the Depression deepened, these dire statistics became even more pronounced, augmented by the burgeoning banking and financial crisis that wiped out millions of savings accounts between 1930 and 1933.

    FDR's response to this unprecedented economic calamity led to a flurry of legislative activity in his first "100 days" in office. The legislation was geared toward reforming the banking and financial sector (via the Emergency Banking Act, the Glass Steagall Act and the Truth in Securities Act, among others) and providing immediate relief in the form of jobs (via the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the establishment of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the launching of the Tennessee Valley Authority).

    By 1934, however, FDR was thinking more and more about the structural failures of modern industrial capitalism and the critical need -- especially in a world where economic hardship had given rise to fascist regimes in Europe and Asia -- to create some measure of economic security. This was particularly important for those who were suffering most in the wake of the West's economic collapse: the aged and unemployed. On June 29, 1934, therefore, FDR issued Executive Order 6757, establishing the Committee on Economic Security (CES).

    Chaired by Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and the first female cabinet member in US history, the CES was charged with developing "recommendations concerning proposals which...will promote greater economic security," especially "security against several of the great disturbing factors in life...unemployment and old age." The Committee received advice from an advisory council made up of leading figures from the public and private sectors (including representatives from business and organized labor), as well as a number of advisory subcommittees. By January 15, 1935, the Committee had completed its work and sent its recommendations to the President, who, after reviewing them, sent them to Congress. In his cover letter, FDR focused on four provisions. Three of those are well known and were incorporated into the final Social Security Act: unemployment insurance, old age benefits, and aid to dependent mothers, children, and the blind. Less well known are the provisions providing federal aid to state and local public health agencies. The President also recommended that the question of "health insurance" deserved further study as per his previous assertion that "the problem of economic loss due to sickness" is "a very serious matter."

    Contrary to the impression one might glean from today's debates over Social Security, the original measure, although somewhat controversial, received a broad measure of bipartisan support. It passed the House by a vote of 371-33 and the Senate by a vote of 76-6 (with 81 Republicans voting for the Bill in the House, and 16 voting in favor in the Senate). It is also interesting to note that the first commissioner of the Social Security Board was a Republican, John Gilbert Winant, the former Governor of New Hampshire.

    Today, despite the current discussions among some policy elites about the need to cut Social Security, the program remains extremely popular among the American public. Moreover, well respected organizations like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argue that recent fears over the near term health of Social Security are greatly exaggerated. Most mainstream economists also agree that the long-term health of Social Security can be secured much as it has been in the past: through an increase or the elimination of the Social Security tax cap, by boosting future revenues, and other adjustments that do not involve a reduction in benefits.

    Whatever the solution, one would hope that both the White House and Congress will be guided by the same philosophical approach that inspired FDR. Reflecting on the plight of the aged and unemployed, he once remarked that the "true conservative seeks to protect the system of private property and free enterprise by correcting such injustices and inequalities as arise from it."

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

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  • The “Special Relationship” between Great Britain and the United States Began with FDR.

    Jul 22, 2010David B. Woolner

    legacy-lessons-150 Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    legacy-lessons-150 Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    British Prime Minister David Cameron's recent visit to Washington has revived interest in what is frequently called the "Special Relationship" between Great Britain and the United States. Many Americans may be familiar with the phrase, as it is often used to characterize the strength of the ties between London and Washington made manifest by the strong British commitment to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; by our joint struggle against international terrorism; and by the bonds of language and history, stretching all the way back to the birth of the Thirteen Colonies.

    There is also a general awareness that the phrase is often used to describe the military alliance established by our two countries during the Second World War, symbolized by successful invasion of Normandy by British, American and Canadian troops on June 6, 1944.  Less well known is the fact that the "Special Relationship" can be directly tied to the wartime leadership of US President Franklin Roosevelt, who purposely sought closer ties with the British as a means to enhance and extend American military and economic power during the dark days of 1939-40 when the world teetered on the brink of the catastrophe that would become World War II.

    Like any President, FDR's foremost responsibility was to maintain the security of the United States against possible attack. Given the threats posed by fascist Germany and Japan, the relative size of our armed forces in comparison with other states and the reluctance of  an "isolationist" Congress to authorize military expenditures in peacetime, this proved to be no easy task. Indeed, in June of 1939 the roughly 180,000-man US Army ranked 19th in the world-smaller than Portugal's! To bolster America's security, FDR not only called for an increase in the size of the nation's military budget, and the repeal of the arms embargo provisions within the 1930s neutrality legislation, he also quietly sought to strengthen America's ties with Great Britain-the one nation whose combined military, political and economic strength might serve as a bulwark against a possible Axis aggression in the Western Hemisphere.

    Given the United States' status today as the world's lone superpower, it is hard for most Americans to imagine a time when we might look to Great Britain and the Royal Navy as America's first line of defense; yet on the eve of the Second World War until well into the early 1940s, Great Britain's combined military strength exceeded that of the United States. FDR was well aware of this. He also understood that it would take time for the United States to catch up with her potential allies and adversaries. Hence one of the fastest and most efficient means for him to bolster America's security was to strengthen the ties between Great Britain and the United States.

    FDR began this effort in June of 1939, with a much celebrated invitation to the King and Queen of England to visit Washington and Hyde Park-the first time a reigning British Monarch had set foot on American soil. This was followed some months later by his reaching out to Winston Churchill who was then First Lord of the Admiralty but was already being spoken of as a potential Prime Minister.  With the outbreak of war, and the disastrous events of May-June 1940, when France fell in a matter of six weeks, FDR was strongly advised by his Chief of Staff, General Marshall, and others not to place America's stock in Great Britain and to concentrate all of his efforts and resources in strengthening America's armed forces.  But FDR refused to adhere to this strategy. If anything, the fall of France and subsequent victory of the Royal Air Force in the "Battle of Britain" served to strengthen his determination to continue to support and establish closer ties not only with the United Kingdom, but also with the British Commonwealth. In August 1940, he concluded the Ogdensburg Agreement with Canada, linking the security of both nations and establishing what would become the Permanent Joint Board of Defense. One month later, at the urging of now Prime Minister Churchill, who reciprocated FDR's desire to establish closer ties, he signed the famous destroyers-for-bases deal, where the United States agreed to supply the Royal Navy with 50 out-of-service US destroyers in exchange for the US right to establish American Naval bases on British territory in Newfoundland and the Caribbean.

    As the war progressed the links between Britain and the United States became even stronger, through the lend-lease program; the creation of such institutions as the Combined Chief of Staff; and the joint efforts of both powers to create a new post-war strategic and economic order through the drafting of the Atlantic Charter; the establishment of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; and the creation of the United Nations. This is not to say that serious disagreements over policy and military strategy did not come up during the war-they did. Moreover, by the end of the war, it was clear to all concerned that the seemingly unlimited economic power of the United States-which by 1945 had placed over 16 million American men and women under arms, developed the first atomic bomb, and built the largest Navy and Air Force the world had ever seen- had rendered it the unequivocally dominant partner in the alliance. But the wartime amity and respect established between the British and American peoples and governments, symbolized by the close personal friendship that developed between FDR and Churchill, would endure. Shortly after the war Winston Churchill reflected on this, noting that a "Special Relationship" had developed between the two peoples.

    Today, as we look back at the events of the past 70 years, and the strong support the United States has received from Great Britain during the Cold War and in our struggle against international terrorism, it seems clear that Churchill's observation was correct. We have had and will continue to have our differences over specific policies, but on balance the British and the American people share a remarkably similar world view. It is for this reason that issues such as what role BP may or may not have played in the release of convicted terrorist Abdel Baset Al Megrahi in 2009 will not break the Special Relationship, for the outrage many Americans feel over this potential travesty is widely shared among the British press (that broke the story) and public.

    The American people would do well to remember this. They would also do well to remember that it was an American President-at perhaps the most vulnerable moment in American history-who initiated the Special Relationship in an effort to save not only the United States but modern civilization as we know it. Thanks to the stalwart courage and determination of the British people, who refused to give in to Hitler, FDR's decision to extend a hand across the Atlantic proved to be the right one.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

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  • Repeating Our Mistakes: The "Roosevelt Recession" and the Danger of Austerity

    Jul 7, 2010David B. Woolner

    legacy-lessons-150 Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    legacy-lessons-150 Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    For those familiar with the New Deal, recent economic reports showing that the recovery is slowing, coupled with the refusal of the Senate to pass legislation (which President Obama supports) to extend unemployment benefits and provide additional federal aid to America's struggling cities and states for fear of adding to the federal deficit sound like history repeating itself.

    In 1937, after five years of sustained economic growth and a steadily declining unemployment rate, the Roosevelt Administration began to worry more about possible inflation and the size of the federal deficit than the ability of the economy to sustain the recovery. As a consequence, in the fall of 1937, FDR supported those in his administration who advocated a reduction in federal expenditures (i.e. stimulus spending) and a balanced budget. The results -- which included a massive reduction in the number of people employed by such programs as the WPA -- were catastrophic. From the fall of 1937 to the summer of 1938, industrial production declined by 33 percent; wages by 35 percent; national income by 13 percent; and not surprisingly, the unemployment rate rose by roughly 5 percentage points, with an estimated 4 million workers losing their jobs.

    The economic downturn caused by the decline in federal spending was commonly referred to as the "Roosevelt recession," and to counter it, FDR asked Congress in April of 1938 to support a substantial increase in federal spending and lending. Unlike the current situation, Congress backed FDR's request, and as a result, the recovery was soon underway again.

    Equally important, the lessons drawn from the 1937-38 recession convinced FDR that deficit spending and monetary expansion were critical to economic recovery. In essence, the Roosevelt Administration, through hard experience, finally endorsed Keynesian economics, and over the course of the next seven years, government spending on the economy -- increasingly fueled by the demands of World War II -- would grow to unprecedented levels, all but wiping out unemployment (which fell to below 2 percent by 1943) and turning the United States into a global super-power in the process.

    Many economists agree that there is a real danger that the reluctance of Congress to pass even the modest measures of new spending called for recently will not only stall the recovery but also lead to a possible double dip recession. The lessons from 1937-38 certainly back this assessment, but unfortunately, it appears that the deficit hawks in Congress are more interested in playing on people's fears and lack of understanding of the federal government's role in the economy than in learning from the past.

    President Obama is right to back this new round of spending, but if he is to overcome the reluctance of those even in his own party to add to the federal deficit, he must do more to convince the American people, as FDR did, that deficit spending during a major economic crisis is not only necessary and right but can also lead to an extended period of economic expansion and prosperity. If there is any lesson to be learned from the years 1933 to 1945, it is surely that -- just ask any member of the Greatest Generation.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

    ND20 ALERT: Join us in NY for fresh ideas, July 16-18! Guild Hall, in collaboration with the Roosevelt Institute, will gather thought leaders in the arts, the economy, and the media in East Hampton for a can’t-miss symposium featuring George Soros, Van Jones, plus ND20 contributors Elizabeth Warren, Rob Johnson, Jeff Madrick, Editor Lynn Parramore, and more. RSVP today - seats are limited.

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  • The Tea Party Movement: Successor to the American Liberty League?

    Jul 1, 2010David B. Woolner

    legacy-lessons-150 Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    legacy-lessons-150 Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    Much has been written about the parallels between President Obama and Franklin Roosevelt. Both leaders assumed office during a time of great economic crisis and at a moment when the United States faced significant security threats from abroad. And, even though President Obama has turned out to be a more of a centrist politician than his liberal supporters would like, he nevertheless shares (albeit to a lesser extent) FDR's belief in the use of government as an instrument to help restore the economy and provide the American people with a basic measure of social and economic security -- hence the push for the stimulus bill and for health care reform, however imperfect critics on both the left and the right find these two pieces of legislation. One further and largely overlooked parallel, however, is the conservative/right-wing reaction to the two men's assumption of power; a reaction that led to the creation of two remarkably similar organizations: the American Liberty League in 1934, and the Tea Party Movement in 2009.

    The American Liberty League was essentially an anti-government organization that ruthlessly attacked nearly every New Deal measure under the guise of its goals "to defend and uphold the [U.S.] Constitution...to teach the duty of government to protect individual and group initiative and enterprise, to foster the right to work, earn, save and acquire property and to preserve the ownership and lawful use of property when acquired."  In hundreds of published pamphlets, the League often sent mixed or contradictory messages, variously accusing the New Deal of being inspired by fascism, socialism or communism, and the President's leadership of being so strong that it was tantamount to the establishment of a dictatorship, or so weak that he rendered himself unable to ward off the sinister influence of his socialistic advisers.

    The League saw economic planning and regulation as a threat to American values, the growth of the national debt as sign of permanent economic decline, and the New Deal itself as the enemy of private enterprise and hence the Constitution. Like the Tea Party, the Liberty League also claimed to be a non-partisan, popularly based organization, but its membership never exceeded 125,000.  It was largely financed by some of the most powerful business interests in the country, including the du Pont family (which provided roughly 30% of the League's budget) and the leaders of General Motors, General Foods, Chase National Bank, Standard Oil, and other major corporations. The League spent enormous sums of money in an attempt to unseat FDR in the 1936 Presidential election, but thanks to the President's exposure of the League's ties to America's wealthy corporate elite -- whom FDR famously termed "economic royalists" -- their plans backfired and the Republicans suffered one of the worst electoral defeats in American history.

    The Tea Party Movement also calls for "Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets."  Like the American Liberty League, it views the recent government initiatives to bring an end to the financial/economic crisis and reform health care as unconstitutional and accuses President Obama of pursuing policies that will turn the United States into a socialist country. The Tea Party also claims to be a non-partisan, populist movement, but a recent New York Times article noted that its membership is disproportionately made up of white male Republicans over the age of 45. It has also been widely reported that the Tea Party has received significant financial support from wealthy donors.

    As a political phenomenon, then, the Tea Party shares many of the same tenets and clearly emerged from some of the same forces and fears that gave rise to the American Liberty League in 1934. The one major difference to date appears to lie in the two leaders' responses; for in spite of his popularity, FDR never took anything -- especially an election -- for granted, and in the 1936 campaign he launched such an effective rhetorical assault on the League and its moneyed backers that by the fall of that year his Republican opponent, Alfred Landon, called the League's endorsement of his candidacy "the kiss of death."  To date, President Obama has chosen not to take on the Tea Party with anything like the same rhetorical conviction, preferring to take a more reasoned as opposed to emotional approach to a remarkably similar anti-government backlash in a time of crisis. This might be more in keeping with his style of governance, but it may be a decision he will live to regret come November.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

    ND20 ALERT: Join us in NY for fresh ideas, July 16-18! Guild Hall, in collaboration with the Roosevelt Institute, will gather thought leaders in the arts, the economy, and the media in East Hampton for a can’t-miss symposium featuring George Soros, Van Jones, plus ND20 contributors Elizabeth Warren, Rob Johnson, Jeff Madrick, Editor Lynn Parramore, and more. RSVP today - seats are limited.

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  • Obama v. FDR: Using the Media to Restore Public Trust

    Jun 16, 2010David B. Woolner

    legacy-lessons-150Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    legacy-lessons-150Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    There is no question that President Obama exhibited a masterful use of the media, including the Internet, during his election campaign. Through it he established an almost unprecedented bond with the American people, especially young people, who came to see his campaign as a means by which they might change their destiny -- both their own and the country's. But in the past eighteen months, that bond has all but disappeared. Perhaps this is because the process of governing is never as exciting as trying to win an election. Perhaps, too, it is because the President has now become a much more familiar figure. Certainly both of these factors have played a role in the demise of the special relationship Candidate Obama enjoyed with the public. But there is more to it than over-exposure or the dreary process of governing. It seems that the President has forgotten or has lost touch with the key element in the world of media relations: his audience.

    One President who never lost touch with his constituency -- the American people -- was Franklin Roosevelt. FDR saw the media not as a separate entity or institution to which he had a special responsibility, but -- much like Candidate Obama -- as a vehicle through which he could communicate directly with the people. Moreover, FDR well understood that a good share of the media ownership in the country regarded him and his policies with hostility. But he overcame this hostility by always staying one step ahead of them; through incessant action, bold leadership and by holding (with a few exceptions) two press conferences a week for a total of 997 while in office!

    FDR's media mastery and brilliant sense of timing meant that more often than not it was his administration that orchestrated the headlines -- headlines that were often in lockstep with the public. FDR was able to do this because he focused on gauging the problems and mood of the nation. His concern's mirrored those of the public and he used the media not only as a means to convey his profound understanding of their hopes and fears, but also as a means to explain how his government proposed to meet them. Perhaps the classic example of this was his use of his famous "Fireside Chats," where the President would explain the settled polices of his government in simple conversational tones, much like a group of friends gathered around a fireplace. No President had ever spoken to the American people in such a manner before and the public responded in kind, increasing the volume of mail sent to the White House from an average of 5,000 letters per week under Hoover to more than 50,000 per week under Roosevelt.

    By making last night's Oval Office address, President Obama took an important step toward restoring his relationship with the American people. But he will need to do more to restore the bond he once had with the public. FDR used the media to constantly remind the American people that he understood their needs and was absolutely committed to acting in their behalf. In doing so, his voice became their voice and in a very real way attacks on the President and his policies were widely regarded as attacks on the people themselves.

    Armed with the public's trust, and having established an almost unparalleled bond with the American people, FDR was able to forge ahead with an unprecedented slate of programs that changed the course of American history. If President Obama wishes to do the same, then he must do much more than simply grant interviews and give the occasional press conference or town hall speech. He must show the American people that his concerns and theirs are virtually identical, so that together they may overcome the vested interests that in recent years have rendered Washington virtually dysfunctional. In short, President Obama, like FDR, must become the people's president.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

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