Obama Rediscovers FDR's Aggressive Economic Policy

Jan 26, 2012David B. Woolner

By telling the story of post-War America's prosperity in the State of the Union, President Obama highlights a path we should take today: forceful government action.

By telling the story of post-War America's prosperity in the State of the Union, President Obama highlights a path we should take today: forceful government action.

In his annual State of the Union Address, President Obama spoke of the generation of Americans who "triumphed over a depression and fascism" to build "the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known." He made reference to his grandfather, a veteran of World War II, who returned from combat and went college on the G.I. Bill. He also referenced his grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line as "part of a workforce that turned out the best products on earth." Together, he went on, they lived with "the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement."

This story is typical of the millions of Americans who struggled through the twin crises of the 1930s and 40s, when the United States was transformed from a country brought to its knees by fear and economic paralysis to the single most powerful nation on the planet. But contrary to popular myth, this transformation -- which included the birth of the modern middle class -- did not take place by accident or miraculously emerge as the result of the initiative of millions of "rugged individualists." It came about because, under the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt, the American government pursued policies that directly benefited working Americans.

The G.I. Bill is an excellent example of this. Under its terms, returning veterans did not just receive a better shot at a job thanks to tax credits offered to companies which might hire them, but a host of concrete benefits. They included full tuition, books, and living expense payments for those veterans wishing to pursue a higher education; support for vocational training; guaranteed unemployment insurance; and low interest loans for the purchase of a home, small business, or farm. The impact of the G.I Bill on postwar America was enormous. Within the next seven years, for example, approximately 8 million veterans would take advantage of its education benefits. As a result, millions of Americans who might never have dreamed of going to college were able to do so; and millions more would enhance their earning power and job prospects through the vocational training and other educational benefits the act provided.

And what of the president's grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line in Wichita? Again, there is much more to this tale than merely the story of a woman trying to help the war effort and make a living by working the night shift in a factory in Kansas. The president's grandmother was in fact part of one of the largest aviation projects in world history: the construction of the B-29 Superfortress. The B-29 was no ordinary aircraft. Aside from its enormous size, it was one of the most advanced aircraft of its day, with high performance engines, a pressurized cabin, an electronic fire control system, and remote-controlled machine gun turrets. To assist with its rapid development, the federal government poured over three billion dollars into the project. At its peak, the manufacture of the B-29 employed hundreds of thousands of workers in four major facilities, including the Wichita plant where 40,000 workers -- whose wages and benefits were secured through their union, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) -- churned out an average of four bombers a day. But even this is only part of the story. Overall, American aircraft production represented the single largest sector of the wartime economy, employing over two million workers, who turned out a staggering 125,000 aircraft at a cost of $45 billion -- roughly one fourth of the $183 billion the federal government spent on war production.

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Conservative critics of the New Deal are fond of saying that it did not work, that it was the Second World War, not Roosevelt's programs, that finally brought the Great Depression to a close. What they ignore is the fact that government spending in the Second World War represents one of the greatest federal stimulus packages in American history -- in essence, the New Deal on steroids. Nor will these same critics ever acknowledge that the postwar economic boom that followed, which built "the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known," came right on the heels of a period of massive government spending and borrowing. Federal expenditures accounted for no less than half of the country's Gross National Product during that period. Even more shocking, from the free market fundamentalists' point of view, is the fact both the war and postwar period of economic expansion came about at a time when union membership and wages were at an all time high.

So when the president calls on us to embrace the "American promise" -- that through hard work the average American can do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send his/her kids to college, and put a little away for retirement -- we should remember that it was not just "American values" that made this possible, but American law. It was the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, for example, that guaranteed the rights of workers to form unions that led the IAM drive to organize the aircraft industry and ultimately improve the wages and benefits of the B-29 workers in Kansas. It was the passage of the Social Security Act in the same year that provided a measure of support for working Americans' retirement and our first national unemployment insurance program. It was the G.I Bill that helped train the thousands of engineers, architects, technicians, and skilled workers needed to meet the demands of the expanding postwar economy. It was the passage of the Glass-Steagall Act and Securities and Exchange Act in 1933 and 34 that helped protect poor and middle class families from the vagaries and greed of the financial sector.

Taken together,  these measures transformed the basic structure of the American economy. American workers -- consumers in today's language -- did not have to go into debt to purchase the goods and services they desired. Rather, they earned a wage high enough to make it possible for them to contribute to the expansion of the economy. And with Social Security and the financial and banking sector properly regulated, these same workers could even invest a small portion of their income in the stock market or put aside a small amount of money to help pay for their children's education. It was this basic economic structure, backed not by socialism but by laws, meant to curb the excesses of unfettered capitalism, which provided the American people with the one thing they wanted more than anything else: economic security.

President Obama is right to demand that we need to return to an economy where "everyone gets a fair shot...everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules." But as we have learned at great cost, the forces of greed and avarice that brought on the Great Recession -- like the forces that brought on the Great Depression -- will not disappear of their own volition. If he really wants to meet the urgent need to restore a sense of balance to the American economy, put the millions of unemployed back to work, and provide a better future for our children, then he should intensify his demand that Congress act quickly and forcefully to do so. He might take counsel from FDR, who, in the darks days of 1932, observed:

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. We need the courage of the young. Yours is not the task of making your way in the world, but the task of remaking the world which you will find before you. May every one of us be granted the courage, the faith and the vision to give the best that is in us to that remaking.

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.

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Michelle Obama and the Fossilized Role of First Lady

Jan 13, 2012Bryce Covert

Women make up half the workforce, get degrees in droves, and have their own careers. So it's little wonder that a role that requires women give that all up is an awkward fit.

Women make up half the workforce, get degrees in droves, and have their own careers. So it's little wonder that a role that requires women give that all up is an awkward fit.

As long as there have been presidents in this country, there have been first ladies at their side. The role is traditionally to act as a homemaker and hostess, tending to the family and the White House. This was the purview of middle and upper class wives, after all. But now that we live in an era where women represent almost half of the workforce, pursuing independent careers and even sometimes acting as the breadwinner for their families, we're still playing catch up. The role of first lady in particular continues to be murky and old-fashioned. Not elected, yet married to the most powerful man in the country. Highly influential, yet often resented for using that influence. And above all, educated and often professionally successful, yet expected to give up their careers. It's an anachronistic role that has fossilized an older ideal of womanhood and wifeliness. And it traps many smart women. Enter Michelle Obama.

When Michelle Obama entered the White House, I was hopeful that we would see a return to the model of a strong first lady who stakes out an agenda. After all, she's a Harvard-trained lawyer who had a career of her own. But I quickly became impatient. Mrs. Obama -- or advisers -- seemed more interested in preserving her sky-high poll numbers than giving her an aggressive agenda. She tackled obesity -- but never touched agriculture policy or our health care system. She reached out to military families -- but said nothing about our need to bring troops home.

I held her in contrast to Eleanor Roosevelt, who had tremendous influence on the White House and the country. But in an excerpt from her new book The Obamas, Jodi Kantor shows there may be more similarities between the two than I had been giving credit for. Kantor's interviews "show that [Obama] has been an unrecognized force in her husband's administration and that her story has been one first of struggle, then turnaround and greater fulfillment." Something similar could be said about Eleanor Roosevelt, except perhaps the part about going unrecognized. Both women, successful professionally, struggled with their roles in the White House when they first arrived. Yet it seems that Obama may be starting to follow a trajectory similar to Roosevelt's -- exerting her influence over her husband's administration and beginning to find her place. As well she should. The role makes little sense given the changes to our workforce, and smart, powerful women must make it their own.

Both women faced their coming roles with anxiety after their husbands won the election. As Kantor reports, "Even as Mrs. Obama dazzled Americans with her warmth, glamour and hospitality early in the presidency, she was also deeply frustrated and insecure about her place in the White House." Nothing could be truer of how Eleanor Roosevelt felt about her coming duties. As Blanche Wiesen Cook wrote in her biography Eleanor Roosevelt, "After the election of November 1932, ER worried that her talents would not be used; that she would become a shut-in, a congenial hostess in the political shadows politically sidelined." Obama tried to delay moving to the White House; Roosevelt went further and allegedly told friends she would run away with FDR's bodyguard, Earl Miller.

This ambiguous and potentially confining role came for both women after highly successful careers that they were asked to drop upon taking up residence in the White House. Cook writes that Roosevelt "enjoyed many careers and was all in a day teacher, editor, columnist, and radio commentator" before the presidency. This was in the '30s, before World War II opened the floodgates for women to enter the workforce, but it was a sign of changing times.

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Obama was, of course, a Harvard-trained, practicing lawyer. She exemplifies the high numbers of women seeking higher education today and moving (albeit slowly) into male-dominated professions. Obama, unsurprisingly, at first chafed at the change: as Kantor writes, "A Harvard-trained lawyer, she had given up her career for what initially seemed to her a shapeless post, and she tried to wriggle out of some ceremonial events that she saw as not having much purpose." Roosevelt also at first obliged grudgingly -- although later on went back to work as a unionized reporter, among other roles.

Both of these stories display the inherent contradictions first ladies face. Both women were/are smart and successful, yet were/are supposed to give up all public roles, become the country's hostess, and stand by their man. It's little wonder that upon entering, Obama told her aides she

never wanted to be the kind of first lady who interfered with West Wing business... It was her husband's administration, not hers, she sometimes said. She had little appetite or expertise for policy detail, and she knew the history of first ladies -- like Nancy Reagan and Mrs. Clinton -- who had been deemed meddlers, unelected figures who wielded unearned power.

That's what tradition dictates. But it goes against her intelligence and skills. Once in, she told her advisers she "wanted a more central role in communicating the administration's message," particularly in selling health care reform. West Wing advisers declined, haunted by the ghost of Hillary Clinton past.

It's taken some time to adjust, but it looks like Obama is warming to the fact that she can make this role what she wants. Kantor writes that later on, "Michelle Obama's trajectory in the White House was changing. She was mastering and subtly redefining the role that had once seemed formless to her, and becoming more acclimated to her new life."

For starters, she's begun to play a similar role within the administration that Roosevelt did: keeper of her husband's conscience. The role of the West Wing advisors is often to figure out what deal is possible; these first ladies look for what deal is the right one. Cook wrote of Roosevelt, "FDR liked to boast that he was a "practical politician." He knew how to compromise, make deals, be duplicitous. ER understood the nature of the game, but wanted some assurance that it would be played for the right reasons, the most needful causes." Obama similarly, as it would seem from Kantor's article, butted heads with advisers because she "cherished the idea of her husband as a transformational figure" and "she saw herself as a guardian of values."

The idea that women are no longer confined to the kitchen and tending to children still makes some people queasy. But it's been our reality for half a century. Our policies still haven't caught up, and the role of first lady is perhaps even more outdated. Here's hoping that Michelle Obama is allowed to take control of it, make it her own, and influence this country for the better.

Bryce Covert is Editor of New Deal 2.0.

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Bill Daley, FDR, and the Influence of Presidential Advisors

Jan 12, 2012David B. Woolner

An examination of the position of chief of staff reveals how crucial the role was to FDR's tenure as president.

An examination of the position of chief of staff reveals how crucial the role was to FDR's tenure as president.

The recent news that President Obama's chief of staff has decided to step down after just a year in office has drawn attention to the role that senior advisors play in the White House and the impact they may have -- or not -- on directing policy and achieving a president's agenda. The role of senior advisor has a long history, dating back to President Woodrow Wilson's use of Colonel Edmund House as an "unofficial" advisor. House was offered an official cabinet position, but turned it down so that he would be at liberty to advise the president on a host of matters. Unlike many of his predecessors, House actually lived in the White House and, thanks to his close relationship with President Wilson, became something akin to what we might think of as a modern-day chief of staff or National Security Advisor, as he played a major role in shaping U.S. wartime diplomacy. Due to the complexity of the issues confronting the United States in trying to shape the eventual peace that would come after World War I, Wilson also asked House to lead a special team of experts called "The Inquiry" that was to help formulate U.S. policy at the peace negotiations. The use of The Inquiry, which included many experts drawn from academia, may have served as a model for a far more influential group of expert advisors that came a generation later under what FDR called the "Brains Trust."

The fact that FDR may have modeled this group of advisors on Wilson's use of Colonel House and The Inquiry should come as no surprise. After all, FDR served as Under Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration and was a great admirer of the latter. The immediate inspiration for this group of advisors, however, came not from FDR, but from his legal counsel and speech writer, Samuel Rosenman, who suggested the idea in the course of FDR's 1932 run for the White House. With the country in the midst of the worst economic crisis in its history, which seemed to defy common understanding, the idea of putting together a group of experts to advise the president during the campaign seemed to make a great deal of sense. Moreover, as Roosevelt had already made use of expert advice during his term as Governor of New York, he readily embraced the idea.

The term Brains Trust -- which was first coined in 1932 by James Kieran of the New York Times -- would come to represent the entire coterie of advisors that surrounded FDR during the New Deal. But the original Brains Trust was actually made up of just three individuals drawn from the ranks of Columbia University: Raymond Moley, Rexford Tugwell, and Adolf A. Berle. All three of these men would play an important part in shaping the New Deal, but it was Moley who had perhaps the greatest initial impact.

Moley was a professor of law and government who had supported FDR's 1928 gubernatorial campaign and was active in the field of criminal justice. He also had a knack for organization and for gathering support for his progressive ideas which, along with his innate ability as a speech writer, led Rosenman to suggest him as the person to both recruit and head up the inchoate group of advisors. Moley was only too happy to do so, and it wasn't long before both Tugwell and Berle agreed to join him.

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In April 1932, Moley undertook his first major assignment for the would-be president, helping draft one of FDR's first major national addresses of the campaign: his famous "forgotten man" speech that focused on rural and urban poverty. In the speech, Roosevelt publicly proclaimed his firm belief in the responsibility of the federal government to come to the aid of ordinary citizens. In doing so, FDR rejected the trickle down approach taken by the Hoover administration in response to the economic crisis and instead called for economic mobilization that focused on the lower -- as opposed to upper -- echelons of American society. As Roosevelt put it:

These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest on upon the forgotten, the unorganized, but the essential units of economic power, for plans like those of 1917 that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Moley played a significant role in both drafting the speech and in giving it its populist appeal. It was Moley, for example, who suggested the phrase "forgotten man" (which stemmed from an essay written in the 19th century by the sociologist William Graham Sumner). The line stuck a chord with the public and came to symbolize FDR's support for the millions of poor and powerless Americans that had been victimized by the Depression. Moley also supported the theme of economic mobilization, another concept that would reappear in Roosevelt's rhetoric as the years progressed -- most famously in his First Inaugural.

Perhaps most importantly, Moley may also be responsible not only for the use of the phrase "New Deal" to describe FDR's social and economic agenda, but also -- at least in part -- for some of its most famous components. It is in a May 1932 memorandum written by Moley, for example, that we first see the phrase New Deal. Moreover, the same document also calls for FDR and the Democratic Party to reject the more orthodox and conservative elements of both major parties and embrace instead a much more progressive agenda. He advocated such ideas as a massive federal program of public works to relieve unemployment, the regulation of the utility industry, greater transparency in the financial sector, and the separation of commercial and investment banking -- all issues that would be covered under the reforms of the New Deal.

Ironically, in spite of Moley's strong influence over FDR's policies in the early months of the New Deal, his tenure as a presidential advisor, like that of Bill Daley, would be relatively short lived. It was shorter, in fact, than Daley's or his two fellow members of the original Brains Trust. Under pressure in part from FDR's Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, who was diametrically opposed to the protectionist aspects of Moley's economic agenda, as well as from FDR's long-time political advisor Louis Howe, who began to see Moley as something of a rival, Moley was forced to resign from public service in September 1933.

Still, there is no question that during the first critical months of the New Deal Raymond Moley wielded a great deal of power and influence in Washington. The fact that he was able to do so, and to rise to the upper echelons of the government so quickly, serves as a reminder of just how important presidential advisors can be. This is surely something the press and public should keep in mind as we move further into this election year.

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 ofFDR and the Environment.

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FDR Wants You to Combat Misinformation About Progressive Policies

Jan 11, 2012Philip Klinkner

fdr-we-need-you-150As he kicked off his reelection campaign in 1936, FDR knew that, then as today, it takes an informed and active public to fight back against anti-New Deal attacks.

fdr-we-need-you-150As he kicked off his reelection campaign in 1936, FDR knew that, then as today, it takes an informed and active public to fight back against anti-New Deal attacks.

The 2012 election promises to be one of the most crucial moments in modern American politics. It's clear that it will be a referendum not just on President Obama and the state of the economy, but also on the New Deal and its legacy of government efforts to ensure security and opportunity for all Americans. Because of this, it's important to look back to America's first referendum on the New Deal, the 1936 election.

Then as today, progressive values were under attack. The New Deal was blamed for continuing unemployment and denounced as un-American, unconstitutional. Roosevelt was portrayed as a socialist, a communist, and a fascist, often in the same breath.

To confront this tide of misinformation, the president kicked off the 1936 election campaign 76 years ago Sunday. On January 8, Roosevelt addressed the Democratic Party's annual Jackson Day dinner at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. In addition, thousands more listened in at similar dinners around the country through a special radio hookup. In his speech, Roosevelt began by pointing out how fitting it was to honor Andrew Jackson since the issue of the day, "the right of the average man and woman to lead a finer, a better and a happier life... was the same issue, more than a hundred years ago, that confronted Andrew Jackson."

But the purpose of Roosevelt's speech was not merely to offer up paeans to Old Hickory. The president understood that the success of his reelection effort, and indeed of the New Deal and progressive, humane government, required an informed and active American public. For this reason he praised Jackson for his efforts to educate and to include average Americans in the great issues of the day. And to do this, Jackson did not rely on the "luxurious propaganda" wielded by his political enemies. Instead, "the man on the street and the man on the farm believed in his ideas, believed in his ideals and his honesty, went out and dug up the facts and spread them abroad throughout the land."

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Roosevelt told his listeners that same problem remained -- the need to get out the truth "in the face of an opposition bent on hiding and distorting facts." Accomplishing this required that all those who believed in progressive causes must constitute a "committee of one" that would

run down statements made to you by others which you may believe to be false. You will need to analyze the motives of those who make assertions to you. You will need to make an inventory in your own community, in order that you may check and recheck for yourself and thereby be in a position to answer those who have been misled or those who would mislead.

Such education and information was vitally necessary since, as Roosevelt put it, "A Government can be no better than the public opinion which sustains it."

The same is true today. Those who share the values and spirit of the New Deal need to educate and inform their fellow citizens so that this election will reflect the true voice of the people, not the distortions of an echo chamber created by narrow and selfish interests. In the words of FDR, "The people of America know the heart and know the purpose of their Government. They and we will not retreat."

Philip Klinkner is the James S. Sherman Professor of Government at Hamilton College. He is the author (with Rogers Smith) of The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America and he is currently writing a book on the 1936 election.

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"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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We Need FDR-Style Proposals to Solve All Our Big Problems

Jan 3, 2012Jon Rynn

fdr-signing-papers-150The New Deal took on many interconnected issues all at once. We need to do the same.

fdr-signing-papers-150The New Deal took on many interconnected issues all at once. We need to do the same.

Both Democrats and environmentalists seem to be searching for new sources of support, according to articles from Thomas Edsall and Leslie Kaufman. For Democrats, the problem is the state of mind of the “white working class,” while for environmentalists the problem is to convince the public that something should be done about climate change. In both cases, the dilemma is the same: the solutions offered do not solve the existing problems, and the public knows it. The working class would likely be wooed if someone proposed a government-led policy of putting millions of people to work rebuilding our infrastructure and the manufacturing base. The general public would likely back policies to prevent global warming if someone advanced a credible program of building a carbon-free economy. Both could be combined in a program that would employ tens of millions to build sustainable transportation, energy, and urban infrastructure, as I have proposed. It will take a holistic -- and therefore credible -- plan to convince voters.

Edsall’s article, and much of the discussion surrounding it, neglects to mention an obvious problem: working class voters are working class because most of them, throughout history, have had manufacturing jobs, and in the United States, those manufacturing jobs have been disappearing by the millions. The Democratic Party, for all of the policy proposals that address the decline of manufacturing, has never put forward a convincing plan to revive manufacturing and the millions of jobs that would go along with it. Surely if the central plank of the Democratic Party was to revive manufacturing -- and if there was a credible plan to do so -- then much of the white working class would come streaming back.

Part of the problem is that the Democratic Party never faced such daunting projects like rebuilding the core of the national economy. When FDR or even LBJ were president, the United States was the manufacturing colossus of the world. Their problem was to redistribute wealth, create a safety net, and increase demand for a never-ending supply of domestically manufactured goods and good, middle-class manufacturing jobs. There is no precedent in the United States for what needs to be done now -- a focused industrial policy led by the government.

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But the New Deal offers a political lesson on the importance of an interlinking set of policies that cut across issue areas, a lesson that can help both the Democratic Party and the environmental movement. FDR’s programs incorporated labor policies in the form of the Wagner Act, legalizing the activities of unions, which helped lead to a thriving middle class. It included conservation policies, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, that employed millions of people who helped to rebuild forests, parks, and agricultural areas. There was the TVA, which used a holistic approach to build up the economy of an entire region based on an energy plan. It included the first plans for a national road system, which eventually resulted in the Interstate Highway System. The mortgage industry, and thus the basis for the later housing industry, was virtually created from scratch. Social Security and the first welfare programs were designed to give people a safety net. Glass-Steagall and the Pecora Commission restructured the financial system.

The parallels are clear for what is needed today. We need millions of green jobs, and tens of millions of jobs, period. We need energy plans and a rebuilding of the agricultural system, and we need an interstate transportation system, this time centered on electric rail. We need a different financial system, perhaps centered on public banks. But what we probably most need is to interconnect all of these issues and create a base for a majority coalition of the electorate, just as the public came to support FDR’s programs under the label of the New Deal.

Similarly, policies for overcoming global warming and other environmental catastrophes will need to be incorporated into a wider rubric, perhaps a "Green New Deal," that encompasses manufacturing, jobs for the tens of millions who are unemployed or underemployed, renewable energy, transit, rebuilding infrastructure, and financial reform.

The point is not to idealize the New Deal or deify FDR. We need to learn the lessons of American history that can be useful for us today. We now face a linked set of economic crises, as did progressives in the 1930s. A program that says, “We will hire tens of millions of people” lets people know that the problem, unemployment, will be solved. A program that says, “We will build the wind farms and solar panels and transit and buildings that will make our economy carbon-free” informs people that the proposers of this kind of program know how to solve the problem. A truly believable plan has to convince people that both outcomes will be reached.

These ideas may seem politically impossible, but all great changes seem impossible before they happen. It is possible to propose policies, and the Democratic Party could propose programs that would be guaranteed to put the working class, and the rest of the employable population, to useful, well-paying work. Environmentalists could propose policies that have a reasonable chance of correcting civilization-endangering environmental problems – which would also involve putting everyone who wanted a job to work. Let’s think outside the box.

Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.

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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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What Was Missing in Kansas: the Greatest Generation's Political Power

Dec 12, 2011Harvey J. Kaye

fdr-we-need-you-150President Obama's speech recognized the progressive values of his grandparents' generation, but not the democratic action that put those values into practice.

fdr-we-need-you-150President Obama's speech recognized the progressive values of his grandparents' generation, but not the democratic action that put those values into practice.

President Obama speaks proudly and often of his grandparents and their generation -- the men and women who confronted and beat the Great Depression and fascism. But for all of his words of admiration and affection, he has yet to show that he truly understands what made the Greatest Generation truly great. His remarks last Tuesday in Osawatomie, Kansas reflected a common misconception of what their struggles, labors, and achievements entailed and what they have to say to us today.

Seeking to regain the political initiative from Republicans, Obama went to Kansas not only to present his ideas on how we might reinvigorate the American economy, but also to reiterate his commitment to enabling Americans to pursue and realize the nation's historic purpose and promise. He specifically chose Osawatomie because it was there, 101 years ago, that the former president and Republican-turned-progressive Teddy Roosevelt delivered his famous "New Nationalism" speech. As Obama noted, it was in that speech that TR said, "Our country...means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy...of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him."

Progressives welcomed President Obama's speech. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote, "It was, at once, a clear philosophical rationale for his presidency, a straightforward narrative explaining the causes of the nation's travails, and a coherent plan of battle against a radicalized conservatism." Progressive editor Matt Rothschild exclaimed, "I wish Obama would go to Kansas more often. His speech... was unlike any I've ever heard him give. He finally embraced progressivism."

Undeniably, Obama made some strong points in his remarks. He finally pointed his presidential finger at the "greed" of bankers and "irresponsibility" of regulators and all that they have wrought. He spoke of the gross inequality that has come to mark American life and how it has corrupted our democracy. And he insisted that government has an important role to play not only in responding to the continuing joblessness and suffering, but also in addressing the ever intensifying inequality and declining opportunity we have experienced.

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Nevertheless, elements of the president's Kansas speech make me doubt that he fully grasps what needs to be done and how to do it. My reservations stem from the way he spoke of his grandparents -- and my parents -- and their generation. Before he quoted Teddy Roosevelt, Obama said:

My grandparents served during World War II. He was a soldier in Patton's Army; she was a worker on a bomber assembly line. And together, they shared the optimism of a nation that triumphed over the Great Depression and over fascism. They believed in an America where hard work paid off, and responsibility was rewarded, and anyone could make it if they tried -- no matter who you were, no matter where you came from, no matter how you started out... And these values gave rise to the largest middle class and the strongest economy that the world has ever known.

All this is true. But like many who praise the Greatest Generation's values, the president left out the most critical, progressive, and democratic, if not inspiring, part of the story.

The men and women who saved the nation from economic destruction and political tyranny, and went on to create the middle class and turn the United States into the strongest and most prosperous nation on earth, didn't do so simply by having the right values and working hard to achieve them. They did so by electing and re-electing Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They chose a leader who not only believed in them, but also rallied and engaged them directly in progressive initiatives and struggles of recovery, reconstruction, and reform.

They undertook these labors against historical expectations, in the face of powerful conservative, reactionary, and corporate opposition, and despite their own terrible faults and failings. In the process, they subjected big business to public account and regulation, empowered the federal government to address the needs of working people, organized labor unions, fought for their rights, reconstituted the "We" in "We the People," established a Social Security system, rebuilt the nation's public infrastructure, and improved the environment. They did so, that is, by harnessing the powers of democratic government and in the process making America freer, more equal, and more democratic than ever before.

We should honor our parents and grandparents from the Greatest Generation. The best way for us to show our appreciation is to live out their politics.

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America. Follow him on Twitter @HarveyJKaye.

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Eleanor Roosevelt's Legacy: How the World Recognized Workers' Right as Human Rights

Dec 9, 2011Brigid OFarrell

eleanor-roosevelt-150This year has seen uprisings around the world demanding rights. Eleanor Roosevelt recognized those rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

eleanor-roosevelt-150This year has seen uprisings around the world demanding rights. Eleanor Roosevelt recognized those rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Tomorrow we celebrate the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948. This year is especially significant. Thousands of people surged through the streets of Cairo as the Arab Spring emerged, challenging dictators across the Middle East. Here at home thousands of workers gathered in the streets of Wisconsin and Ohio fighting an unprecedented attack on labor unions. Workers joined with the unemployed as Occupy Wall Street and the 99% moved from New York City across the country to shut down the Port of Oakland. Economic inequality became the subject of media, new and old. As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich reminded us, employee pay is now down to its smallest share of the economy, while corporate profits make up the largest share of the economy since the start of the Great Depression. Average citizens around the world are standing up for their human rights: political, civil, economic, and social.

Often overlooked in this time of reflection on human rights is the inclusion of  workers' rights and the role of unions. On April 25, 1945, delegates from around the world met in San Francisco to begin deliberations on a charter for the United Nations. In an unprecedented move, over 40 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were invited to participate. Only seven NGOs were then given consultative status to attend meetings, suggest agenda items, and present positions to the Economic and Social Council. Three of them were labor groups: the AF of L, the World Federation of Trade Unions, where the CIO played a leading role, and the International Confederation of Christian Trade Unions representing European unions. Phil Murray, president of the CIO, said that he represented all of labor when he gave his full support for including human rights in the charter and establishing a Human Rights Commission, both of which were accomplished.

That same year, after President Roosevelt's death, President Truman asked Eleanor Roosevelt to become a delegate to the United Nations. The UN established a commission to bring nations together to agree on some very basic principles, and he asked Mrs. Roosevelt to chair the effort. Just as Doris Kearns Goodwin describes Lincoln as orchestrating a team of political rivals, ER, as she often signed her name, guided a complex international team of philosophers, lawyers, politicians, diplomats, and trade unionists to develop the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They addressed economic and social rights, as well as political and civil rights, for the first time.

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Eleanor Roosevelt was a very proud and public member of a labor union. As a working journalist, she joined the American Newspaper Guild in 1936 and had her union card in her wallet when she died in 1962. When she went to the United Nations, she worked closely with David Dubinsky of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, Mathew Woll of the Photoengravers Union, Jim Carey of the CIO, and Rose Schneiderman of the Women's Trade Union League. The AF of L hired Toni Sender, a journalist and politician who had fled Nazi Germany, to be its full-time staff person at the UN. Together, they made strong arguments for the specific inclusion of trade union rights in the document and they addressed the closed shop and the right to strike. ER explained that the United States delegation considered that "the right to form and join trade unions was an essential element of freedom." While fighting against the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act at home, under her guidance Article 23 declared that everyone, without discrimination, has the right to a decent job, fair working conditions, a living wage, equal pay for equal work, protection against unemployment, and the right to join a union.

The General Assembly met in Paris in 1948. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed on December 10 with 48 votes in favor and none against. ER thanked the unions for their help and they acknowledged her contributions when Phil Murray sent a letter supporting Eleanor Roosevelt's nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. The Declaration remains one of her greatest accomplishments and the cornerstone of today's powerful human rights movement.

Practicing what she preached, ER told striking members of the IBEW that "everyone who is a worker should join a labor organization." She came to believe this was true for workers in the public sector as well as in the private sector. She argued for full employment at home and economic aid abroad. For her, all employees around the world had a right to a decent job and a voice at work, without fear of harassment or intimidation. But when asked "Where, after all, do human rights begin?" she answered, "In small places close to home... the neighborhood... the school or college... the factory, farm or office... unless they have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere."

Eleanor Roosevelt's voice resonates today with a call for reform not only to achieve economic gains, but to restore a basic element of democracy to women and men who work for a living. And as she told the delegates at a CIO convention, "We can't just talk. We have got to act... And we must see improvement for the masses of people, not for the little group on top." International Human Rights Day is a call to action for the 99% across the country and around the world.

Brigid O'Farrell is an independent scholar. This blog draws on her most recent book, She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker, now available in paperback from Cornell University Press.

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How to Break a Capital Strike? Full Employment

Dec 8, 2011Bryce Covert

If banks want to threaten capital strikes, the government should fight back by putting people to work and taking power away from banks.

If banks want to threaten capital strikes, the government should fight back by putting people to work and taking power away from banks.

Last week, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley announced she would be suing the five biggest mortgage servicers over robo-signing. The very next day, GMAC Mortgage said it would withdraw most of its lending in the state. It offered up the excuse that "recent developments have led mortgage lending in Massachusetts to no longer be viable." What recent developments would those be? Asking mortgage companies to adhere to the rule of law?

This could be called, as Matt Stoller was quick to point out, a capital strike -- a lender refusing to lend in protest of government policy. A capital strike is a theoretical situation in which lenders decide to shut down the economy by refusing to invest and hire workers in reaction to government intervention that forces them to make bad business decisions. Sound familiar? While banks saw their profits rise to $29 billion in the first three months of 2011, a 66.5 percent increase over the same period last year, the loans they gave out declined at the end of 2010 and hiring has been sluggish. They're not investing and hiring.

Wall Street is not in all probability actually on a capital strike. Besides the fact that the idea of all the firms getting together and executing an organized action is far-fetched, the reason they're not investing and hiring is because the economy (and therefore demand) sucks, not because the government hasn't given them enough backrubs. While the term "capital strike" used to be thrown around on the far left, the John Boehners of the world are now using it as a threat against enacting any government policy that might hurt the business sector's feelings. The idea is that if the government enacts too many regulations, raises taxes too high, and otherwise does things that business doesn't like, we risk them shutting down the economy.

Capital doesn't have a great reason to be on strike. Think times are bad? Firms are making a third more profit than they did before the recession. Feel overburdened by regulation? Only the large corporations are worried about new regulations -- small businesses aren't feeling affected. Taxes got you down? Taxes on corporate earnings are at a 60-year low.

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So besides GMAC's targeted action, it's highly unlikely that Wall Street has gotten together and decided to strike against the government. What's more likely, as Peter Frase suggests at Jacobin, is that the threat of a strike is having the same effect:

[J]ust as in a labor strike, sometimes you don't actually have to go out on the picket line: you just have to convince the other side that you're ready and willing to strike. Just as a union might use a strike authorization vote to increase its leverage at the bargaining table, so the right's economic propaganda is designed to tilt the political playing field away from labor and toward capital.

This is what John Boehner claims to be so worried about and what makes so many inveigh against Obama's supposedly anti-business policies. If we don't placate Wall Street, it'll shut down the whole economy! Do what it wants so that no one gets hurt!

But as Frase points out, just because a group goes on strike -- be it labor or capital -- doesn't mean we have to give in to their demands. When workers strike, management can either negotiate or try to break the strike. So if we follow the capital strike logic and assume that capital is threatening a strike (whether or not it would really do so), the government, as management, has the choice to negotiate or break the strike.

Wall Street got us in this mess. Why should we give in to its threat to strike? Instead, the government can break it -- and the best way would be for it to spend money in pursuit of full employment. It would seem on first glance that full employment would be in the best interest of the banks: employed people can spend more money on goods, increasing demand, greasing the wheels of the economy and therefore profits. Yet we can look back to the 1930s and 40s to understand why full employment could be the best tool for breaking capital's grip on our politics.

FDR also faced a slowdown in investment and called it a capital strike meant to take down his presidency and the New Deal. Roosevelt's Assistant Attorney General Robert Jackson himself said the slowdown in investment was a "general strike -- the first general strike in America -- a strike against the government -- a strike to coerce political action." The New Deal was a concerted effort to get people back to work. Why was capital so dead-set against it? In 1943, economist Michal Kalecki asked the same question: "The entrepreneurs in the slump are longing for a boom; why do they not gladly accept the synthetic boom which the government is able to offer them?" His answer had two important points. Firstly, if raising employment is left solely to the laissez-faire market, then "capitalists [have] a powerful indirect control over government policy." Anything to shake their confidence has to be avoided. Once the government takes over that function, though, that power is diminished. Secondly, those capitalists also lose power when workers aren't as dependent on their current employer for a job. If under full employment a worker is almost guaranteed work, he has much better leverage to demand higher wages, better benefits, etc. from his employer. Either way, banks will lose their hold over the economy.

Breaking the threat of a capital strike in this way is a win-win. It first and foremost puts people back to work. But it also has the nice effect of loosening Wall Street's stranglehold on politics. Its power will diminish. Sounds good to me.

Bryce Covert is Editor of New Deal 2.0.

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