The Hundred Days War: Histories of the New Deal
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.