[Marxism] FDR's 100 days

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Apr 10 14:18:35 MDT 2009

The Hundred Days War: Histories of the New Deal
By Thomas J. Sugrue

Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of 
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
by H.W. Brands

Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created 
Modern America
by Adam Cohen

During Barack Obama's first hundred days, history has provided pundits 
and politicians with a grab bag of analogies. Obama himself has invoked 
Abraham Lincoln and put him on a pedestal. I'm not speaking 
figuratively: a bust of the sixteenth president sits on the same plinth 
in the Oval Office where Obama's predecessor had displayed a sculpture 
of Winston Churchill. Obama has also cited Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team 
of Rivals, an analysis of Lincoln's complex relationships with leading 
members of his cabinet, as a model for his own style of presidential 
leadership. Journalists have compared the youth and idealism of Obama 
and his supporters to John F. Kennedy's Camelot, and fashionistas have 
twittered about the dashing Michelle being a latter-day Jackie (with 
sinewy biceps). Still others have suggested that Obama embodies Reagan's 
charisma while reclaiming Reaganesque paeans to national greatness for 
the Democrats. A few wags have tried to burst the bubble of hope by 
comparing Obama to Jimmy Carter, another Washington outsider and 
intellectual who promised sweeping change but whose mandate collapsed 
under the weight of recession, malaise and crisis in the Middle East.

Barack Lincoln. Barack H. Kennedy. Barack Carter. Barack Reagan. None 
have captured the imagination of editorialists, bloggers and journalists 
like Barack Delano Roosevelt. A recent New Yorker illustration portrayed 
the forty-fourth president chin up in the Rooseveltian fashion, 
exuberant and self-confident, a cigarette holder clenched in his teeth. 
In this version of history-as-analogy, Obama's fight against the "Great 
Recession" will restore a faith in government that has been wholly 
discredited by the disastrous policies of George W. Hoover. Obama's most 
fervent supporters hope that the president's stimulus package and 
ambitious budget will launch a "new New Deal" designed to restore 
confidence in the financial system, curb unemployment, revivify the 
housing market and rebuild America's decaying highways and schools. The 
Obama-Roosevelt analogy is compelling--until you remember that history 
does not repeat itself. It is not cyclical. And it seldom offers easy 
lessons for the present. Ultimately, the differences between FDR and BHO 
and their respective eras are as instructive as the similarities.

Each generation has drawn its own lessons from the New Deal. The first 
wave of New Deal histories were written by unabashed Democrats during 
the 1950s and early 1960s, when liberalism seemed invincible. The 
eminent historian and Washington courtier Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. 
popularized the heroic interpretation of Roosevelt with a triple-decker 
history in which the New Deal represents the full flowering of an 
American political tradition of strong executive power and visionary 
leadership rooted in the Age of Jackson. FDR created the modern American 
state, offering a pragmatic, humane alternative to the radical 
individualism and anti-statism that had long hindered the fulfillment of 
the American promise of equality and opportunity.

By the 1960s, however, the New Deal was under siege from various 
quarters. Left-leaning scholars, alienated by liberalism's hubris, 
skeptical of military-industrial Keynesianism, outraged at the Vietnam 
War and inspired by radical insurgencies at home and abroad, argued that 
the New Deal was fundamentally conservative. FDR's cardinal sin was that 
he saved capitalism from itself rather than taking the opportunity to 
nationalize the financial system and redistribute wealth. He transformed 
the state into the servant of big business, letting corporate executives 
and financiers draft legislation that allowed them to consolidate power, 
while he co-opted radical social movements with symbolic gestures.

Conservatives rejoined with their own demonology of the New Deal. In a 
view that trickled down from the National Association of Manufacturers 
and the National Review and was distilled into the bitter libertarianism 
of Barry Goldwater and his followers, the New Deal was the epitome of 
collectivism, a dangerous repudiation of the founders' ethos of 
governmental restraint, budgetary parsimony and states' rights. 
Innovations like federal jobs programs and Social Security threatened 
personal liberty by turning citizens into dependents. More recently, in 
The Forgotten Man, Bloomberg financial columnist Amity Shlaes resurrects 
the Goldwaterite reading of the Roosevelt years, arguing that the New 
Deal sapped the vitality of the free market and--in her most hyperbolic 
moment--that "government intervention helped make the Depression Great" 
by dampening competition, over-regulating business and coddling the 
common man with make-work programs rather than unleashing his 
entrepreneurial spirit.

For the past forty years, however, most conservatives have reserved 
their criticism of the New Deal for corporate boardrooms and think-tank 
seminars. One reason for their silence was political pragmatism. The 
right had little to gain by publicly thrashing a president whose memory 
was held dear by the blue-collar whites whom Nixon, Reagan and the 
Bushes assiduously courted. The war on poverty, black power, the 
counterculture, feminism and the sexual revolution made for more 
convenient targets. But as Republicans fought the culture wars, 
conservative activists captured executive branch agencies and the 
federal courts, chipping away at welfare, Social Security and scores of 
federal regulations. The strange result was that while Ronald Reagan 
once claimed FDR as a personal hero, his wing of the Republican Party 
gutted liberalism.

The fragmentation of the New Deal coalition in the post-1960s years was 
mirrored in the increasingly fragmented scholarship on the New Deal. One 
group of liberal intellectuals--who took the conservative critique of 
identity politics seriously--called for a reinvigoration of a 
Rooseveltian spirit of civic nationalism as an alternative to both the 
libertarianism of the Reagan years and the divisive politics of the 
culture wars. For writers as diverse as Michael Tomasky and Richard 
Rorty, the New Deal was the triumph of class politics; it unified 
Americans across racial and ethnic lines in service to the common 
political and economic good. But their wistful view of a politics of 
unity was challenged by other scholars who contended that Roosevelt's 
signature programs, including the Social Security Act, the Agricultural 
Adjustment Administration, the Federal Housing Administration and the GI 
Bill, mostly excluded blacks, while New Deal welfare programs 
stigmatized the poor and disadvantaged women. Rooseveltian liberalism 
was above all constrained by the power of conservative Southern 
Democrats who used their clout to thwart social democracy. As political 
scientist Ira Katznelson memorably put it, the New Deal was the "strange 
marriage of Sweden and South Africa."

At the dawn of the Age of Obama, the heroic, liberal Roosevelt is back 
in fashion. The front tables at bookstores groan under the weight of 
massive biographies of the thirty-second president, among them jailed 
financier Conrad Black's surprisingly favorable Franklin Delano 
Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Jean Edward Smith's widely praised 
and magnificently written FDR. A new addition to the pile is another 
sprawling account, Traitor to His Class, by the prolific University of 
Texas historian H.W. Brands.

The prospect of plowing through another full-scale biography of Franklin 
Delano Roosevelt is daunting, especially when it offers few revealing or 
novel insights into FDR's life, his pre-presidential career, the New 
Deal and World War II. Predictable, yes, but Traitor to His Class is 
reliable and compulsively readable. Brands writes in the vein of FDR's 
earlier, liberal chroniclers: his is a mostly favorable account of 
Roosevelt's career, with an emphasis on the dramatic turning points in 
the Depression and war, and on the president's leadership style. But the 
Roosevelt who emerges from Brands's book is less a rebel against 
privilege than a humane and ultimately pragmatic politician, one whose 
bout with polio spurred him to greater sympathy with the downtrodden but 
who was scarcely a radical, despite his occasionally fiery antibusiness 
rhetoric. Like many elites, especially from his home state of New York 
(including many who enthusiastically joined the ranks of New Dealers), 
FDR combined a sense of noblesse oblige with a faith in the application 
of expertise to solve pressing social and economic problems.

Roosevelt may have dramatically expanded the size of the government and 
its public spending, but his programs were seldom as large in scale or 
as revolutionary as they first appeared to be. The New Deal did not 
centralize governmental power as its critics had feared it would; it 
left the administration of the most important relief 
efforts--unemployment insurance, old age assistance, aid to dependent 
children and job-creation programs (the Public Works Administration 
excepted)--in the hands of state and local officials who used federal 
funds as a form of local patronage and who often shunted aside 
politically marginal groups like African-Americans. Roosevelt's populist 
rhetoric was belied by his administration's close collaboration with big 
business. His Social Security Act was a two-tiered program that provided 
generous benefits for the elderly but was penurious toward unmarried 
mothers and their children. His housing programs excluded minorities and 
disadvantaged central cities. And his most long-lived work programs 
lasted less than a decade. As historian Alan Brinkley recently argued, 
"the New Deal has often seemed as significant for its failures and 
omissions as for the things it achieved." Brands's biography would have 
been more powerful had it paid more attention to FDR's failures and 

Like Brands, Adam Cohen echoes the first generation of liberal 
scholarship on the New Deal in Nothing to Fear, the newest of three 
books on FDR's first hundred days to appear in the past three years. In 
Cohen's view, FDR's first hundred days were nothing less than "the third 
great revolution" in American history. Cohen, a member of the New York 
Times editorial board and co-author of an excellent book on 
mid-twentieth- century Chicago boss Richard Daley, focuses on the 
president's inner circle--a professor, a social worker, a labor 
reformer, a crusading agricultural journalist and a cantankerous fiscal 
conservative. In Cohen's account, FDR is the nation's improviser in 
chief, someone with few strong convictions and shockingly little 
expertise on economic issues. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins considered 
the president to be economically "illiterate." But FDR turned his 
weakness into a strength. "Roosevelt does not have the extreme pride of 
personal opinion that has characterized some of our more bull-headed 
presidents," wrote Henry Wallace, shortly before FDR appointed him as 
agriculture secretary. "He knows that he doesn't know it all, and tries 
to find out all he can from people who are supposed to be authorities."

Roosevelt's lack of convictions (other than a sense of urgency to 
address the Depression) was remedied by his ability to delegate 
policy-making to what he called a "factocracy," a talented and 
unorthodox group of advisers, many of whom had little experience in 
Washington. Through artfully drawn vignettes of budget director Lewis 
Douglas (the one Washington insider), confidant Raymond Moley (a 
Columbia economics professor), Wallace (who edited his family's farm 
newsweekly), Perkins (a longtime advocate for working women) and public 
works administrator Harry Hopkins (a social worker), Cohen compellingly 
conveys the extraordinary sense of possibility in Roosevelt's 
administration, even in one of the bleakest moments in American history.

Roosevelt's first hundred days were unprecedented in their scope and 
ambition. Barely settled in the White House, his administration 
stabilized the nation's collapsed financial system. He repealed 
Prohibition--in an act that enhanced his popularity and stimulated at 
least one vital sector of the economy. Altogether he signed fifteen 
major pieces of legislation in just a little more than three months. 
Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority, a massive public works 
project meant to modernize the region's economy. The newly minted 
Agricultural Adjustment Administration provided crop subsidies to 
farmers, regulating output and stabilizing prices in the deeply 
depressed agricultural sector (although privileging large farmers and 
seldom benefiting tenant farmers or farm laborers). His job-creation 
programs--the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Public 
Works Administration--dramatically reduced the ranks of the unemployed 
and stimulated the economy by building roads, libraries, post offices, 
hospitals and schools. And through the National Industrial Recovery 
Act--the most controversial and least effective of these first 
programs--the Roosevelt administration instituted central economic 
planning, promoting a novel collaboration between business and government.

For good reason, Cohen is most sympathetic to Roosevelt's job creation 
and public works programs and their advocates--Perkins and Hopkins. His 
most sensitive portrait is of Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the first 
woman to serve in a presidential cabinet. Through a detailed account of 
her career, Cohen captures the humanitarian and reformist impulses that 
coursed through the New Deal. A witness to the infamous Triangle 
Shirtwaist fire of 1911, a crusader for minimum-wage and hours laws, an 
idealist but also an astute political operative, Perkins used her 
cabinet post to lay the groundwork for the New Deal's staunchly prolabor 
policies. For the first time, the government allied itself with 
organized labor and working people--an alliance that Southern Democrats 
and probusiness Republicans would assail in the 1940s but that was 
arguably the New Deal's greatest contribution to mid-twentieth-century 
American prosperity.

Cohen's argument that Roosevelt's programs were revolutionary, however, 
overstates the case. Most of FDR's programs were inspired by similar 
local and state innovations in the early twentieth century, the 
expansion of regulatory powers under Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow 
Wilson and the interventionist economic policies of World War I. FDR 
also expanded Herbert Hoover's policy innovations. Cohen resuscitates 
the hoariest clichés about the Hoover administration as the last bastion 
of laissez-faire capitalism. To buttress his argument, he relies on the 
authority of one of Roosevelt's most partisan biographers, Arthur 
Schlesinger Jr. It was politically expedient for Schlesinger to draw a 
bright line between Hoover and Roosevelt. And it was made easier by 
Hoover's three-decade-long post-presidency--in which the bitter 
Republican spent most of his time railing against the New Deal. But 
Cohen discounts a whole generation of scholarship on Hoover that offers 
a far more nuanced portrait of his politics. Hoover was no libertarian. 
As secretary of commerce in the Harding administration and then as 
president, Hoover reorganized and dramatically expanded the federal 
bureaucracy. He stepped up antitrust enforcement--in contrast to FDR, 
who jettisoned antimonopoly politics while gesturing to it in his 
occasional denunciations of greedy business leaders. Hoover also created 
the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and signed the Federal Home Loan 
Bank Act, which restructured mortgage markets in an effort (that FDR 
would expand) to promote homeownership and spur the construction 
industry. The Tennessee Valley Authority grew out of Hoover-era public 
works projects, most notably the massive Boulder (later Hoover) Dam 
project. None of these programs were as ambitious as their New Deal 
counterparts, but they grew from the same Progressive roots that 
nourished Roosevelt's initiatives.

The political philosophy of Roosevelt's first hundred days was anything 
but coherent. The new administration mixed fiscal conservatism, central 
planning, large-scale government spending and public-private 
partnerships, localism and states' rights. Its successes were the result 
of experimentation, but so too were its failures. For example, Douglas, 
much more of a budget hawk and small-government advocate than Hoover, 
pushed through the Economy Act of 1933, which dramatically cut 
government spending, and in the process undermined the stimulative 
effects of Roosevelt's public works and jobs programs. Fiscal restraint 
characterized even FDR's most ambitious spending programs. None of the 
public works and job-creation programs of the early New Deal were 
sufficient to lower national unemployment rates below 10 percent. They 
stimulated modest growth--but together were not substantial enough to 
pull the country out of the Depression. FDR was so beholden to the 
principle of balanced budgets that in 1937 he dramatically cut federal 
spending and caused a devastating downturn. It would take the massive 
spending of World War II--still the most convincing demonstration of the 
power of Keynesianism to date--to reinvigorate the economy.

To note the limitations of the New Deal should not diminish its 
accomplishments. The legacy of the New Deal is inescapable: think of our 
post offices, bridges, highways and national parks, many of which began 
falling into decrepitude in the late twentieth century when Republicans 
axed domestic spending. Roosevelt and his successors failed to enact 
national health insurance, but they dramatically increased access to 
medical care through a massive hospital-building program. The programs 
launched in the first hundred days ended up delivering electricity to 
large parts of the United States, bringing the South into the First 
World. The New Deal's most important legacy, one hard to quantify, was 
that it transformed the relationship between citizens and the state, 
with enduring consequences. The New Deal launched a rights 
revolution--one embodied in FDR's calls for an expansive "economic bill 
of rights" that included decent housing, remunerative work and security 
in old age.

FDR's increasingly capacious sense of political rights was in part the 
outgrowth of innovative policy-making in the executive branch. But as 
historians like Lizabeth Cohen and Meg Jacobs (authors of important 
books on consumer politics) have shown, the New Deal was not simply 
developed and administered from the top down. It also sprang from 
political organization, grassroots mobilization, petitions, protest and 
disruption, or the threat of it. You wouldn't know this from Brands and 
Cohen, whose books share a weakness common to many presidential 
biographies. They offer rich insights into the life of Roosevelt and his 
advisers but relatively few glimpses of the times. The vast majority of 
Americans--the quarter of the population unemployed in early 1933, the 
masses lined up to recoup their money at failing banks, the wretched 
refugees of the Dust Bowl--appear mostly as passive bystanders, victims 
waiting to be saved by a heroic president. They listen to FDR on their 
radios, they write moving letters to the White House, but they are not 
the agents of change.

At best, both books give cameos to the Bonus Marchers, those World War I 
veterans who marched on Washington to demand that the country reward 
them for their sacrifice. Cohen devotes a paragraph to the pitchfork 
rebels of Iowa who rioted to protest foreclosures in 1933, leading to 
the imposition of martial law, and who had counterparts in nearly every 
rural area of the country in the early 1930s. The authors give a nod to 
the influence of militant labor activists. But their accounts downplay 
the firebrand leftists who gathered tens of thousands in mass 
demonstrations in nearly every big city; the unionists who used the 
economic dislocations of the Depression to organize workers to challenge 
corporate greed and demand workplace security; the millions of 
blue-collar workers, many of them immigrants and their children, who 
joined unions; and the urban blacks, fired up by FDR's promise to 
deliver them from poverty but outraged at the persistence of 
discrimination, who boycotted stores and who grew increasingly restive 
as the United States entered World War II.

Our history of the New Deal is woefully incomplete with these folks cast 
as extras in the drama of presidential politics. FDR's sense of urgency 
was not simply bred by his political genius, his leadership style or his 
personal experience. All of those mattered--they made him receptive to 
external pressure and, unlike Herbert Hoover, sympathetic to the plight 
of the "forgotten man." But the policy experiments of the New Deal were 
also the result of fear of upheaval and, later, concerns that radicals, 
whether communist or fascist, whether followers of Huey Long, Francis 
Townsend or Charles Coughlin, would prevail.

Whether Obama can tame the Great Recession, whether his mostly seasoned, 
Clinton-era circle of advisers will boldly experiment, and whether his 
presidency will ultimately be compared favorably with Roosevelt's, 
remains to be seen. It pays to recall that the New Deal was the result 
of presidential leadership and policy innovation, but also that the 
drama of the Great Depression and the New Deal played out in places far 
from the nation's capital--on New York City's streets, in Nebraska's 
cornfields, in Flint's auto factories and in California's shipyards. 
Perhaps the biggest difference between 2009 and 1933 is that Obama has 
not, at least yet, been seriously tested by organized pressure from 
below. That might ultimately be what distinguishes FDR's administration 
from Obama's.

About Thomas J. Sugrue
Thomas J. Sugrue, the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor of History 
and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of The 
Origins of the Urban Crisis and, most recently, Sweet Land of Liberty: 
The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. more...

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