David B. Woolner

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow

Recent Posts by David B. Woolner

  • "For Men and Not for Property": Lessons for the President from Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt

    Jan 5, 2012David B. Woolner

    In channeling TR, perhaps Obama will channel both men's mission to use government to ensure a more equal society.

    "In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity." -Theodore Roosevelt

    In channeling TR, perhaps Obama will channel both men's mission to use government to ensure a more equal society.

    "In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity." -Theodore Roosevelt

    It was just a month ago that President Obama traveled to Osawatomie, Kansas to lay out a new, more populist agenda for his re-election campaign and to press Congress to extend the two percent payroll tax cut he instigated last year. He chose to travel to Osawatomie in large part because this was the site where Theodore Roosevelt gave his famous "New Nationalism" speech. It was there that the former president excoriated the power of wealthy special interests and demanded a greater role for government in ensuring that the average American was able to enjoy equal economic and political opportunity.

    In his remarks, President Obama rejected what he called "you're on your own economics." He argued strongly -- like TR did more than a century earlier -- that the triumph of democracy means not merely the triumph of the free market but the triumph, as TR said, of "an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him."

    He also spoke eloquently about the alarming rise of income disparity in the United States, fueled in part by the steady decline of wages among the middle class over the past few decades and in part by the more recent decision to lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans to the lowest rates in more than half a century. This inequality, Obama continued, not only "distorts our democracy," it also makes a mockery of the perennial American belief that even those born with nothing can, through hard work, earn their way into the middle class.

    As reported in the New York Times today, a number of recent studies now show that President Obama was quite correct in pointing out how hard it has become for poor Americans to move up the economic ladder. Indeed, it now appears that Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their counterparts in much of Western Europe and Canada. One alarming study, for example, found that fully 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom 20 percent income bracket stayed there as adults. Equally disturbing is the fact that the poor in America have less than their counterparts in Canada and Western Europe and hence have to work their way up from a lower position, while at the same time benefitting less from the type of social safety net available in other developed countries. This renders America's poor -- especially America's poor children -- much more vulnerable to debilitating hardships.

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    The great gap that has once again emerged in the United States between the wealthy few and the seemingly permanently impoverished many, separated by a shrinking middle class, is not something that either Theodore or Franklin Roosevelt would have found acceptable. Both men, in fact, dedicated themselves to the idea, as TR said in his Osawatomie speech, that one of the "chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege." Both men also believed, to quote TR again, that the "essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows." In his day, TR noted, this struggle appeared as the effort of freemen "to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will." This was especially necessary at that time, he went on, because the "absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power."

    Sadly, Theodore Roosevelt, running as a third party candidate, lost the 1912 election and hence never got the opportunity to take on the forces of special privilege he attacked so eloquently in his Osawatomie speech. But his distant cousin Franklin (who was an enormous admirer of TR) did, and in the process transformed the federal government -- for the first time in American history -- into an active instrument of social and economic justice.

    It is interesting to note that Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, one a Republican and one a Democrat, consistently rank among the most popular and important presidents in American history. It is equally interesting to observe that they earned this respect not so much through compromise or equivocation, but by adhering to a political philosophy that was not afraid to take on the forces of wealth and privilege in the best interest of the country as a whole. TR called this philosophy the New Nationalism; FDR called it the New Deal. It was based, as TR said, on the idea that the executive branch of government must serve as "the steward of the public welfare," that the judiciary should "be interested primarily in human welfare rather than in property," and that the Congress "shall represent all the people rather than any one class or section of the people."

    It is encouraging to see President Obama pay tribute to the progressive ideas of Theodore Roosevelt and, through him, FDR. Whether he will adhere to them in the long run is an open question. Powerful forces are certainly arrayed against him and, as evidenced by the extreme policies of the conservative right, he may have to make some hard choices about whether or not his penchant for compromise is really in the best interest of the country. Here, too, he might find strength in the words of TR, who, near the close of his Osawatomie speech, remarked:

    I believe in shaping the ends of government to protect property as well as human welfare. Normally, and in the long run, the ends are the same; but whenever the alternative must be faced, I am for men and not for property...

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938. He is also the co-author with Henry Henderson of FDR and the Environment.

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  • How the CCC Blazed a Trail for Conservation and Education

    Dec 22, 2011David B. Woolner

    A new book details the history of a program that educated and employed millions of Americans and established one of our most precious resources.

    A new book details the history of a program that educated and employed millions of Americans and established one of our most precious resources.

    In a remarkable new book entitled Our Mark on this Land: A Guide to the Legacy of the CCC in America's Parks, Ren and Helen Davis remind us of just how powerful and long lasting visionary leadership can be. The book details the enormous impact that Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) had on our country, not only through the massive reforestation programs that resulted in the planting of over 3 billion trees, but also through the restoration and expansion of one our nation's most treasured public resources: our state and national parks.

    Over the course of its 10-year history, the CCC employed over 3 million men in what the authors describe as the largest peacetime mobilization of manpower in U.S. history. What is perhaps even more remarkable is that this mobilization began within the first 100 days of FDR's administration, in the midst of the worst economic crisis in American history and at a time when there was little to no state apparatus to launch such a program. Moreover, like many of the New Deal programs, the CCC was multifaceted. It was designed to accomplish multiple goals simultaneously and was in fact much more than a conservation program. It was also a youth unemployment program, an urban assistance program, and -- as is largely unknown -- an educational program.

    Within months of its inception, CCC administrations discovered that there was a critical need for technical training and, above all, basic literacy instruction. As such, CCC workers were also tasked with building their own classrooms where CCC employees could take remedial classes. As the CCC program progressed, more advanced instruction was offered in a variety of subjects, including mathematics and history, along with more basic technical and vocational training. These programs also helped to employ many jobless teachers. Over time, the educational mission of the CCC became extremely popular and by the late 1930s more than 90 percent of the CCC workers were enrolled in some sort of educational program.

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    But it is the more tangible work of the CCC that is so magnificently catalogued in this book. As the Davises note, the legacy of the CCC lives on in hundreds of parks across the country. Here, CCC workers cut thousands of miles of trails, built innumerable bridges and roads, designed and constructed thousands of rustic cottages and other buildings, and helped transform the National Parks Service into a truly national agency. Most important, however, was the effect that the CCC had on the ethos of the nation. For in sponsoring what the authors call a "second golden age" of conservation, and by providing through their labor unprecedented access to our nation's wild places, the CCC fostered greater appreciation for the preservation and enhancement of our nation's natural resources. And as more recent scholarship reveals, it also helped sow the seeds of the modern environmental movement.

    At a time when the United States is once again struggling with high unemployment and growing level of poverty, especially among the urban poor, launching a program like the CCC to help restore our nation's blighted and impoverished inner cities makes sense. Such a program could do much to help restore both the physical and ethical challenges we face as nation. It would also provide the millions of young people trapped in the despair of poverty with meaningful employment, a chance to further education, and the one thing that FDR was determined to provide above all else: hope for the future.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938. He is also the co-author with Henry Henderson of FDR and the Environment.

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  • FDR's Response to Pearl Harbor: Economic Freedom as Vital National Security Policy

    Dec 7, 2011David B. Woolner

    In the aftermath of the day which will live in infamy, President Roosevelt understood that ensuring human rights, particularly the right to economic wellbeing, was the only way to stave off extremism.

    Mr. Vice President, and Mr. Speaker, and Members of the Senate and House of Representatives:

    Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan...

    In the aftermath of the day which will live in infamy, President Roosevelt understood that ensuring human rights, particularly the right to economic wellbeing, was the only way to stave off extremism.

    Mr. Vice President, and Mr. Speaker, and Members of the Senate and House of Representatives:

    Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan...

    The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our Nation...

    No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory...

    Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.

    I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire. -Franklin D. Roosevelt, December 8, 1941

    It was 70 years ago today that the myth of American invulnerability came to a sudden and dramatic end. On that day, wave after wave of Japanese bombers attacked the sleeping base at Pearl Harbor and in their destruction helped usher in a new era in American and world history.

    Like virtually all other Americans, FDR was shocked and outraged at the events that occurred that Sunday morning. But in other respects, the events at Pearl Harbor confirmed what he and many of his advisors already knew about the state of the world in the mid-20th century: It was a much smaller place. In an "air age," the distances across seemingly vast oceans had been dramatically reduced. If one looked at a map of the world from the perspective of the North Pole -- as FDR was wont to do -- the continents of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres seemed to almost touch one another.

    These observations may seem commonplace to us today with our satellite communications and intercontinental ballistic missiles. But in 1941, they were quite profound and to a large extent reflected, as the historian Alan Henrikson has written, the "mental map" that Franklin Roosevelt had developed over years of interest in geography, map reading, and even the collecting of stamps from far-off lands.

    FDR, in short, had a profound understanding of the physical make-up of the planet. As such, he tended to see the world as a single community made up of neighboring states inhabited by peoples who shared many of the same hopes and aspirations. He also believed that "people who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made." One only had to look at the catastrophic decade of the 1930s, with its global economic crisis and the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia, for confirmation of this sad truth.

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    For Roosevelt, then, the Second World War, as he called it, was as much about the perils of economic depravity as it was about blatant international aggression, for the latter was one of the by-products of the former. In a very real sense, therefore, the welfare of peoples living in the heretofore distant corners of the earth had a direct bearing on the welfare of the people of the United States. The war in fact proved beyond a doubt that the two were inextricably linked. The hardship suffered in one part of the world -- hardship that led to the creation of the most brutally aggressive regimes history had ever seen -- had now reaped its destruction upon America itself.

    It was for these reasons that FDR implored the American people in their "righteous might" to not only help him "win through to absolute victory," but also to help create a world, as he said nearly a year before, founded on four essential human freedoms: Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. For by helping to establish these rights, including the right to live free from hunger and fear -- "everywhere in the world" -- the United States would render itself far more secure and much less likely to have to face an even greater conflagration in the future.

    In light of these revelations, FDR did all he could to convince the American people that the United States had to play an active role in world affairs. He felt it was critical that the "United Nations" -- the long forgotten name of the wartime alliance created just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor -- continue to strive for peace and prosperity after the war was over. He sought to work with our friends and allies to build the necessary institutions, such as the United Nations Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, to reorder the world's economic system and facilitate great power cooperation in the postwar world.

    Of course, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, FDR also accelerated the build-up of American arms, including a massive expansion of the U.S. Army Air Force, and engaged in a significant restructuring of American defense and intelligence capabilities. This led to the creation of the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the postwar Central Intelligence and National Security Agencies -- all designed to transform American foreign policy into what might best be called National Security Policy.

    But in the long run, FDR understood that American military and economic power were not enough to provide the kind of security the American people desired in the wake of the day of infamy. Equally important was moral leadership -- the promotion and adherence to the rule of law, democratic values, and basic human rights, including the all-important right of every person to enjoy basic economic security.

    Today, as we look around the globe, we can see that FDR's assessment of the basic hopes and aspirations of peoples the world over to live in a world based on his four fundamental human freedoms is as strong as ever. The evidence is clear in recent events in the Middle East, Moscow, and here at home in Zuccotti Park. The United States may face a future where our status as the world's leading economy may one day no longer be certain, but the values that inspired the valiant men and women who fought the Second World War can and should remain a beacon of hope to all those who aspire to live in a more prosperous and peaceful world.

    As FDR reminded us seven decades ago: "Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them... To that high concept there can be no end save victory."

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book on U.S.-UK economic relations in the 1930s, entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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  • A Feast for the 1%, a Famine for the One Third

    Nov 23, 2011David B. Woolner

    As we celebrate this Thanksgiving, we should remember that 100 million of our fellow citizens are struggling to get by.

    [H]ere is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens -- a substantial part of its whole population -- who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.

    I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.

    As we celebrate this Thanksgiving, we should remember that 100 million of our fellow citizens are struggling to get by.

    [H]ere is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens -- a substantial part of its whole population -- who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.

    I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.

    I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.

    I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children.

    I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions.

    I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

    -Franklin D. Roosevelt, January 20, 1937

    Nearly three quarters of a century ago, Franklin Roosevelt rededicated himself and his administration to the creation of an America where the government and the people alike would strive to eliminate the destructive and unjust disparities of wealth that had wrought such great economic hardship that they threatened to undermine the very essence of our democracy. Thanks to this commitment, generations of Americans embraced the idea that, as President Obama once said, "in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play."

    But in a disturbing article published earlier this week, the New York Times took note of the growing number of Americans whose hard work and responsibility have not brought them the measure of economic security they deserve. Struggling with incomes that stand just above the poverty line, they are labeled the "near poor." This diverse group of individuals and families lives paycheck to paycheck under the constant threat of economic ruin, often working multiple jobs at low wages that have remained stagnant for decades. According to data that has yet to be published by the Census Bureau, the number of "near poor" in the United States has risen to 51 million individuals, which, as the Times reports, places approximately 100 million people, or one in three Americans, "either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it."

    The fact that one in three Americans now lives in poverty or just above the poverty line provides us with another distressing link between the Great Recession and the Great Depression. It harkens back to Franklin Roosevelt's Second Inaugural Address, when, after noting the nation's economic progress since the beginning of his first term, he challenged the American people to do better and join him in an effort to "paint out" from our national canvas the sight of "one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished."

    It was true, Roosevelt said, that since the day of his fist inauguration, the country had made great strides in reversing the downward economic spiral that had gripped the nation in paralyzing fear. Faced with an unprecedented economic catastrophe, the people of the republic had dedicated themselves "to the fulfillment of a vision -- to speed the time when there would be for all the people that security and peace essential to the pursuit of happiness." But, he went on, "our covenant with ourselves did not stop there. Instinctively we recognized a deeper need -- the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization."

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    In that purpose, he continued:

    ...we have been helped by achievements of mind and spirit... We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays. We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.

    This new understanding undermines the old admiration of worldly success as such. We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life.

    It is odd that in this time of Thanksgiving, one hears little about the millions of Americans trapped in or threatened by poverty or the need to fashion a society where the "elementary decencies of life" -- a job with a decent wage, access to health care and higher education -- are within the reach of all. It is even more perplexing that in a time of serious economic depravity, the focal point of our all-but-dysfunctional Congress is not how "to find through government the instrument of our united purpose" but how to obstruct the very sort of structural reforms needed to help average Americans secure better lives for themselves and their children.

    Part of this stems from the blind faith that free market fundamentalists have falsely promoted as the solution to all of our problems and from the inordinate amount of money that now flows from Wall Street to Washington, creating a new Gilded Age where the 400 wealthiest individuals in the United States possess more wealth than the bottom 150 million combined. But another part of it stems from our own misguided perception of what constitutes wealth and progress. In this second Gilded Age, wealth and progress have come to mean one and the same thing -- the acquisition of an inordinate amount of capital or other assets by an individual, often obtained through mere financial transactions.

    For Roosevelt, however -- and for much of his generation -- the definition of wealth and progress was much more in keeping with the spirit of Thanksgiving. "Happiness," as FDR famously said in his First Inaugural Address, "lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort." Four years later, he added that the "test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

    For the 100 million citizens of our nation now struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, these words sadly offer little comfort, for it appears we have abandoned the noble effort of the Depression generation to paint the specter of poverty out of our national canvas.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book on U.S.-UK economic relations in the 1930s, entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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  • 2012: 1932 Redux?

    Nov 8, 2011David B. Woolner

     

    If Congress continues to obstruct efforts to revive the economy, today's incumbents may suffer the same fate as Herbert Hoover.

    The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.

     

    If Congress continues to obstruct efforts to revive the economy, today's incumbents may suffer the same fate as Herbert Hoover.

    The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.

    We need enthusiasm, imagination, and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely. We need to correct, by drastic means if necessary, the faults in our economic system from which we now suffer.

    -Franklin D. Roosevelt, May 22, 1932

    Seventy-nine years ago today, on November 8, 1932, the people of the United States elected Franklin D. Roosevelt President of the United States.  No one was absolutely sure what FDR would do as president, but everyone understood that the United States -- and much of the rest of the world -- was in deep trouble.

    Since the start of the Great Depression three years earlier, unemployment had climbed above 20 percent, average annual family income had fallen by 40 percent, and thousands of banks had closed their doors, wiping out the savings of 9 million individual bank accounts. Roughly half of all the home mortgages in the United States were in default, with another 1,000 homes going under every day. American industry had all but collapsed. To take but one example, in 1929 United States Steel Corporation had 225,000 full-time employees; by the end of 1932 it had no full-time employees save its corporate officers and a mere handful of part-time workers. The same was true in the financial sector, where overall stock market values had declined by 85 percent since their high in September 1929.

    The human side of this story is even more distressing. In its November 1932 issue, The Nation estimated that approximately 20 million Americans -- one sixth the total population -- were at risk of starvation during the coming winter. By the end of the year, more than 2 million homeless people were roaming the streets looking for work or relief, of which approximately 200,000 were children -- mostly boys under the age of 14. In the coal mining regions of West Virginia and Kentucky, over 90 percent of the young were already suffering from malnutrition, as were more than 160,000 young people in New York City.

    In the face of such a devastating crisis, FDR came to the conclusion that the forces of the market place had failed to deliver basic economic security to millions upon millions of Americans. He rejected the laissez-faire ideology that dominated the 1920s and understood that the forces of greed and avarice -- led by what his cousin Theodore Roosevelt called "the malefactors of great wealth" -- had created such an imbalance in our economic system that without immediate, significant reform, the U.S. might find itself in the throes of a revolution. This became all too clear with the rise of fascism and other forms of totalitarianism in parts of Europe and Asia.

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    In essence, FDR believed that for democracy to work, capitalism had to work -- not for the few, but for all. He dedicated himself to the idea that against the forces of "economic tyranny" that had brought about this great crisis, "the American citizen could only turn to the organized power of government."

    It was out of this basic conviction that FDR launched the New Deal, not to destroy the free market system, but to save it. Under his guidance the American people embraced the notion that in a complex modern industrial society the government can and must serve as the primary instrument of social and economic justice. It was this simple philosophy that brought us Social Security, unemployment insurance, banking and financial reform, the minimum wage, the right of labor to organize, and a host of other reforms that fundamentally altered the relationship between the American people and their government. The New Deal also offered millions of unemployed the dignity of work -- the chance for the laborers, architects, artists, and engineers of this great nation to build much of the economic, artistic, and environmental infrastructure that we still enjoy today.

    Above all, FDR understood -- as he said in his first inaugural -- that "this nation asks for action and action now." Thanks to the support he enjoyed among most congressional Democrats and a significant number of liberal Republicans, he was able to push through the most significant slate of legislative reforms in our nation's history. In doing so, he not only helped alleviate a great deal of economic suffering but also restored the American people's faith in democratic government.

    There is no question that a good share of the support FDR received in his campaign for the White House in 1932 stemmed from his repeated calls for action and his criticism of the lack of initiative on the part the Hoover administration to meet the economic crisis. After more than two years of unemployment at or above 9 percent, the mood of the electorate today is not all that different than it was in 1932. Polls show a mixture of anxiety, despair, and frustration at Congress's refusal to pass common sense measures -- like President Obama's jobs bill -- that would offer some relief to the millions of unemployed Americans.

    To date, the deficit hawks in Congress seem unconcerned about the cost of their obstructionism, but if 1932 is any guide, this may prove a risky strategy for the coming election. To paraphrase FDR, the American people may tire of a "hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing government" -- except that this time they may take out their frustration not on the president, but on Congress.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book on U.S.-UK economic relations in the 1930s, entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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