When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal

Did we in 2008 elect another Franklin Roosevelt or another Herbert Hoover? This wonderfully comprehensive analysis of the New Deal’s response to the Great Depression and the Obama Administration’s response to the Great Recession addresses that question.

This anthology, edited by Sheila D. Collins and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, compares the two administrations on banking, jobs, agriculture, the environment, labor, social movements, welfare, culture, and the economy. It documents the similarities and differences between the two presidencies in the context of the political skills of each president, the available channels of communication and his ability to use them, the strength and composition of his party, the interest groups and social movements aiding and opposing him, and other environmental, cultural, and international factors that each faced.

Several common themes emerge. One was Roosevelt’s superior ability to use language evoking traditional American values to explain to the electorate what was happening to them and what his policies were intended to accomplish. Obama’s “soaring rhetoric” was no substitute for the ability to articulate policy in ways that would forge alliances and win over adversaries.

Another was Roosevelt’s vision of the interrelationships of problems, which allowed him to devise policies to combat economic, social, and ecological disasters simultaneously.  The Civilian Conversation Corps and the Tennessee Valley Authority are just two examples. Obama’s Affordable Care Act may one day come close to matching the multiple impacts of these policies, but his stimulus effort fell far short.

Another was the utility of radical movements to Roosevelt’s left. These multiple groups of dissenters struck enough fear in the hearts of New Deal opponents that they accepted Roosevelt’s “slightly-left-of-center” programs rather than risk getting something far worse.  Obama, of course, cannot be blamed for not having enough enemies on the left to frighten the right into compromise. He might, however, have gotten further by paying more attention to advocates of “the public option” in health reform and less to placating Republicans.

The greatest contrast between the presidents is in the area of job creation. The New Deal spawned a dozen programs that created public jobs. Roosevelt stimulated the demand side of the economy, not the supply side so beloved by Republicans.  In contrast, Obama did not believe that the public sector could create jobs. In this he is clearly a Hooverite. And his pitiful stimulus effort showed it.

Though I have emphasized Roosevelt’s successes, this book is no hagiography.  It is as alert to the failures of the New Deal as to Obama’s missed opportunities. There is still time to learn from both.

Reviewed by Alex Tarr

is Professor Emeritus, Arizona State University and currently a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Long Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal. He serves on the Research Board of the Living New Deal.

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