FDR, Obama, and Occupy Wall Street: Time for Another New Deal?

Oct 20, 2011David B. Woolner

FDR didn't just extend his sympathies to protesters. He listened to their demands and worked to implement real solutions to their problems.

As the Occupy Wall Street protests that originated in lower Manhattan gain momentum, a good deal of speculation has arisen in the press. Will the protesters coalesce around a set of demands? Will President Obama and the Democratic Party embrace the movement? What impact will the protests, which have now spread to other parts of the country, have on the 2012 presidential election?

Although there has been some resistance to the idea of the movement adopting a formal agenda for reform, many of the demands and some of the rhetoric generated by the protesters echo similar calls for reform that emanated during the New Deal. Last Sunday evening, for example, it was reported that Occupy Wall Street's Demands Working Group had endorsed the idea of a New Deal-style public works program that would put millions of Americans on the government payroll rebuilding the nation's crumbling infrastructure. Another idea that has surfaced within the movement is the restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act.

What is most significant, however, is the possibility that the Occupy Wall Street movement might spur the Obama administration and Congress to embrace reform and take stronger government action to combat the current economic crisis. In this respect, it has the potential to mirror the powerful social justice movements that emerged during the 1930s -- movements that not only drew national attention to the great disparities in wealth between the rich and the poor in the United States, but also pushed the Roosevelt administration and Congress to adopt some of the most significant pieces of reform legislation in U.S. history. The passage of the all-important Wagner Act, which established a permanent National Labor Relations Board and enshrined the right of private sector workers to form unions, was inspired in large part by the more than 1,800 strikes that broke out in 1934. The Social Security Act, which provided an old-age pension and established unemployment insurance, was spurred on in part by the 2 million-member Townsend movement that put forward a tax and pension scheme that made it clear that the government had to do something to provide basic economic security for the elderly. For the millions of unemployed, who often took to the streets in frustration, Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration, which put over 8.5 million Americans to work building the roads, bridges, airports, and schools that still make up a significant portion of our nation's economic infrastructure.

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President Obama has recently indicated that he sympathizes with the concerns of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but he has yet to embrace it. FDR was not nearly so circumspect. It is true that during his initial year in office, FDR -- much like President Obama -- adopted what can best be called national unity politics. This, coupled with his innate political caution and abhorrence for ideology, made him reluctant to join ranks with those who were in the streets demanding reform.

But as early as mid-1934, the president -- who in his heart of hearts agreed with the calls for more progressive government -- began to change his tune. In one of his famous Fireside Chats, delivered near the end of June 1934, FDR took note of the fact that in spite of the great progress that had been made stabilizing the economy and meeting the immediate crisis, it was time to look to the future -- time for the country "to find a way once more to well-known, long established but to some degree forgotten ideals and values," and time for the Government and Congress to "seek the security of the men, women and children of the nation." He continued:

That security involves added means of providing better homes for the people of the Nation. That is the first principle of our future program.

The second is to plan the use of land and water resources of this country to the end that the means of livelihood of our citizens may be more adequate to meet their daily needs.

And, finally, the third principle is to use the agencies of government to assist in the establishment of means to provide sound and adequate protection against the vicissitudes of modern life -- in other words, social insurance...

A few timid people, who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing. Sometimes they will call it "Fascism," sometimes "Communism," sometimes "Regimentation," sometimes "Socialism." But, in so doing, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and very practical.

I believe in practical explanations and in practical policies. I believe that what we are doing today is a necessary fulfillment of what Americans have always been doing -- a fulfillment of old and tested American ideals.

In the coming 18 months, FDR -- inspired and motivated by the determination of the millions of Americans who embraced a number of mass movements demanding social and economic justice -- would launch his famous Second New Deal. It was a wave of legislation that, through such programs as Social Security and the Wagner Act, is still very much with us to this day.

As the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to grow, perhaps the president and our leaders in Washington should do more than merely extend their sympathy. Perhaps they should take a lesson from the New Deal and act to address the concerns of a new generation -- a generation that may not yet have articulated a specific set of demands, but one that is crying out for a government animated by the same spirit that stood at the heart of the New Deal, driven by the desire to provide social and economic justice for all.

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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