In an interview with Anand Giridharadas Chuck Schumer said that he was looking for Joe Biden to have a First 100 Days like Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s.
Democrats, in many ways, look to FDR as the gold standard of Democrats. He was probably the most popular Democrat ever (I mean, he got elected four times!), he got us out of the Great Depression, his programs are some of the most popular and enduring of any programs ever. He certainly had his flaws – nobody is forgetting the internment camps – but FDR style leadership and economics set the bar for what Democrats would and should be for decades to come. So when Schumer, and others, say they want Joe Biden to have an FDR style presidency, they are making a comment about a number of things:
One, they are making an observation about the context of Biden’s presidency. FDR was a great president because he brought us through a number of crises. Well, we find ourselves in the midst of multiple crises, now. When Democrats say they want Biden to have an FDR kind of presidency they mean they want him to get us through these difficult times. Great leaders come out of difficult situations.
Two, they want to see the ideas of the Democratic party renewed and revitalized. FDR laid the groundwork for the Democratic party for decades to come. The Dems want to see Biden breathe life into the philosophy that brought us the New Deal, that made the Democratic Party the stronghold it is in American politics, and quite frankly, saved American from herself.
So let’s take a few minutes to talk about FDR’s political career. This isn’t an academic history lesson this is all stuff you could get from a quick Google or a browse through Wikipedia. But that just goes to show you how prolific Roosevelt’s administration was.
When FDR was elected, Hoover wanted Roosevelt to renounce his campaign promises and endorse hoover administration policies. FDR flatly refused. FDR was going to enact radical change from the Hoover administration to his.
FDR was Coming into the worst depression in American history. There was 25% unemployment. Produce prices had fallen by 60%. Industrial production had fallen by half. Millions were homeless. 32 of 48 states had closed their banks. FDR’s response was to enact the First New Deal.
First, there was a four-day national bank holiday. The purpose of this was to give time for Congress to act. He Called for a special session of Congress during which they passed the Emergency Banking act which gave the Pres power to determine the opening and closing of banks and the Federal Reserve Bank the power to issue banknotes. This gave the executive office a LOT of power over money and banking.
FDR’s First 100 Days were unparalleled. He did more work in those days than any president before and set the bar for all presidents that would come after. When banks opened on March 15th stocks rose by 15 % and deposits exceeded withdrawals, effectively ending the bank panic.
He Established the Federal Emergency Relief Administration which was designed to distribute relief to state governments. FERA’s main goal was to alleviate household unemployment by creating new unskilled jobs in local and state government. Jobs were more expensive than direct cash payments, however, they are more desirable for the unemployed. A job was a matter of self-worth. There was a mental or psychological factor at play, there. Getting a job was better than getting cash. And the government was willing to pay for that. FERA provided work for over 20 million people and developed facilities on public lands across the country.
The Public Works Administration was a Roosevelt project which was created to oversee large scale infrastructure projects. Its goals were to spend $3.3 billion in the first year, and $6 billion in all, to provide employment, and help revive the economy. The PWA spent over $7 billion in contracts to private construction firms that did the actual work. It created an infrastructure that generated national and local pride in the 1930s and remains vital to this day.
Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps which hired 250,000 young men to work on local rural projects. The CCC was a major part of the New Deal that provided manual labor jobs related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands owned by all levels of government. The CCC was designed to provide jobs for young men and to relieve families who had difficulty finding jobs. It was the Most popular of all the New Deal programs.
Roosevelt established the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was the largest government owned industrial enterprise in American history. It built dams and power stations, and controlled floods and modernized agriculture and home conditions in the poverty-stricken area of the Tennessee Valley.
Roosevelt was spending tons of money, but he had promised to cut the federal budget. So he reduced military spending by 30% and veteran benefits by 40% and cut the salaries of federal employees and reduced spending on research and education. But veteran benefits were largely restored by 1934.
The Second New Deal, from 1935-1936, focused on social insurance. It established the Social Security Act, which has been a gold standard of policy since its inception.
This period also so the National Labor Relations Act, which guaranteed that workers had the right to bargain collectively through their unions. The act established the National Labor Relations Board which facilitates wage agreements and work to suppress labor disputes. Union membership skyrocketed.
The Second New Deal was not as popular in the business community in the way that the First New Deal had had wide support from all parts of the nation. As is the American tradition, opponents equated FDR with famous communists. But FDR turned the tables and painted his opposition as being in bed with wealthy businessmen who shared no interests with the common, working American and won the 1936 election in a landslide.
So what about Joe Biden. What situations does he find himself facing? COULD he be a new FDR? Does the situation call for it? Let’s look at what Biden is facing:
The first thing Biden will have to immediately deal with is the COVID crisis: it is a medical, scientific, messaging, and PR disaster. A crisis made worse by the bungling of the previous administration just like FDR and Hoover. But it is a vastly different kind of crisis. And influx of government spending won’t stop the spread of disease. It Will take leadership, communication, and possibly mandates.
We will need Cooperation with state governments. America is handling this crisis worse than any other developed, or colonial nation. Because we WILL NOT follow the advice of medical and professional scientists. We are, quite frankly, selfish, and pathetic. We cannot be bothered with the most basic of directions. Stay home and wear a mask. That’s it. Just stay home and wear a mask. And that is too much for the majority of Americans to hear, and so the disease is running unchecked through our communities. We have the technology to see and talk to each other and socialize and do everything but physically touch each other in our homes and in some cases the palms of our hands (I realize that’s a classes and privileged statement) but we can’t be bothered to just open up the computer or turn on the phone. We are insistent on leaving our houses and spreading this disease regardless of who we hurt. We are spectacularly selfish. And I don’t know how Biden is going to address this issue. How does Biden fix the problem that Americans are just kind of crappy people that are more interested in their own fleeting moment of enjoyment than the well-being of even those they care about? This will take real leadership. It might take mandates. It might take mandates with actual consequences. It will definitely take cooperation with state and local governments, and many of those have shown little interest in protecting their constituents.
FDR instituted his famous fireside chats to propose his ideas to the American people and communicate to use clearly and simply what he wanted for and from us. Biden may need to talk to us as often and as simply. We may need to hear from him frequently and broadly – we may need constant reminders and leadership if we are going to behave in any kind of manageable way. But Roosevelt could command an audience because there was less to compete with and in his day when the president spoke, you listened. How can Biden get us all to listen to him, even if he addresses us regularly?
Biden is going to have to find a way to lead us through and convince us to fundamentally change our way of thinking and living – he is going to have to convince us that the American thing to do is not the individualistic thing but the collective. If he can do that, he will truly have outdone FDR.
Another, related crisis Biden has to deal with is the economic crisis America finds herself in.
The unemployment rate in America is 6.9%, which is thankfully down from the 14.7% high in April. It is going down every month. But the virus is spiraling out of control again, worse, and unchecked, and it seems lockdowns may be inevitable. What will that mean for unemployment. We could be looking at high unemployment again in the near future. That means people will need relief.
A Biden presidency could make itself historical by providing much needed and welcome relief to a country that is dying for it. But it will have to get that by a Republican Senate, first. Biden will have to manage a split Congress if he wants to make the kinds of historical moves that Americans so desperately need. Basically, he’s got to get by Mitch McConnell. Now, he may have a better chance of doing that than Obama did. Biden has decades of experience working with the people who are in power now and knowing how to make bipartisan efforts happen. But the GOP is, right now, doing everything they can to even keep him from claiming that he won the election, let alone letting him make any kinds of moves to administrate once he is president. It will take real leadership on Biden’s behalf to bring relief to a thirsting America once he is in the Oval Office.
Biden needs to bring relief to the American people if he is going to be remembered in the same league as FDR. That is, after all, exactly what FDR did. He brought a gasping nation air. But for Biden to do that he will have to convince Republicans that it is the government’s job to take care of people, not markets. And he has 40 years of politics to overcome if he wants to do that.
Another crisis that Biden faces, that doesn’t get a lot of media attention at the moment, but is a crisis, nonetheless, is the student debt crisis. THIS is something Biden can do something about without having to worry about a contentious and oppositional Congress. Biden could forgive student debt if he chose to. And given that student debt is at over 1.5 trillion dollars I think we can say it is at crisis proportions.
This is a matter of wealth accumulation. Countless Gen X, Millennials, and Zoomers cannot accumulate wealth because they are paying off student loans. And if they cannot accumulate wealth there cannot be generational wealth. And without generational wealth people can’t buy houses, invest, save – the student debt crisis is robbing multiple generations of stability and the ability to own or ever retire.
Rumor has it that Biden is considering doing something about the student debt crisis by forgiving the first 50k of student debt for borrowers across the board. This could open up opportunities for countless Americans. They could improve their credit, begin to accumulate wealth, start to save for retirement or a house – Biden could change people’s lives in immeasurable, positive ways with the stroke of a pen.
America, and the rest of the world with her, faces an existential crisis in the looming environmental threat. It is interesting that Democrats specifically reference FDR when they speak of plans to deal with global climate change. The plan to address the climate crisis is the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal is controversial, and not every Democrat has signed onto it. But Biden has an opportunity to create his own version of the Green New Deal and truly follow in FDR’s footsteps. Biden has the opportunity to use the awesome power of the federal government to drastically curb carbon emissions, provide incentives for individuals AND corporations to recycle and reduce their waste, and provide training and funding for research for renewable energy sources and green jobs. He could create a program the size and scope of the original New Deal specifically to deal with climate change.
But could he get it past centrist Democrats and a Republican Senate?
This is the existential threat of our time. It will take bold steps the likes of which we have not seen from our government SINCE the days of FDR.
Will Biden be able to follow in Roosevelt’s footsteps?
An issue, if not a crisis, that Biden will have to deal with is the crippling divide in our nation. Yes, we are divided along racial lines, and gender lines, and political lines, but in some ways the real divide is the urban/rural dividing line.
Counties that voted for Biden represent 70% of the economy of America, but not much of the area. Democrats represent areas that are diverse, economically profitable (and therefore driven by particular industries), and densely populated. Republicans represent sparsely populated, poor, homogeneous areas. This makes a big difference in their interests. Democrats are interested in different industries than Republicans – tech, maybe manufacturing, media, education, and green jobs. Republicans are interested in farming, also maybe manufacturing, and ranching. Democrats see the value of a social safety net and programs that benefit groups of people and society as a whole. Republicans see value in laws that protect the individual. That represents how their constituents live.
Here Biden could take a page of FDR’s book. FDR reached out to rural, poor communities by working to improve their lives through specific, localized, efforts. The Tennessee Valley Authority provided work and local improvement to some of the hardest hit areas in America. America is rife with pockets of poverty and crumbling infrastructure that could use a TVA. Alabama, Mississippi, and Appalachia are crumbling to the point that the UN has sent investigators into some of those areas to investigate. One way to bridge the gap between the rural and the urban is to create programs like the TVA that actually and visibly improve the lives of people in rural, poverty-stricken areas. Biden could establish the next TVA.
One significant way in which Biden could differentiate himself from FDR would be in the area of Civil Rights. In 1942 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which authorized the forced internment of Japanese-American citizens in camps across America. It is one of the darker parts of American history.
Right now we have what amounts to concentration campus not on our border, but throughout the United States where we have forced refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented immigrants. The conditions of these camps is horrific in a variety of ways, but the thing that shocks most people the most is that we have forcibly separated children from their parents for no reason other than to hurt and terrorize these families. It is emotional abuse and torture, and the Unites States is blatantly guilty.
Joe Biden has the opportunity to be the anti-FDR, here. He can close down the camps. He can increase the number of asylum-seekers and refugees we allow into the country. He can make our country more human, not less. He can reverse decades of abusive policies when it comes to immigrants and refugees. He can outdo FDR.
We must also note other ways in which Biden must deviate from FDR if he is to be a historic president. FDR cut funding to education and research. In the middle of an era plagued by problems that require creative, analytical thinking and problem solving, and class and wage stratification in equal measure, cutting funding to research and education would be a grave mistake. Education is absolutely essential to help future Americans create for themselves stable positions in an increasingly competitive world. That education also inspires the future artists, writers, scientists, engineers, and mathematicians that will fuel the world and solve our problems in the next generation. And the problems we face now, and even more certainly in the future, are problems that will be solved by research – research done by students coming from this well-funded education system, in fact! In this way it is absolutely essential that Biden deviate from FDR’s pattern.
Finally, we must acknowledge the means by which FDR got so much work done. FDR drastically expanded the executive power of the presidency and implemented his OWN policies, not Congress’s, in order to fight the crises that America was facing. That has since become par for the course, and we don’t think about it, but it was not how things were supposed to work originally. Congress was supposed to make policy, not the President.
Will Joe Biden expand the power of the President to get us through these challenging times? Are we comfortable with that? We are just coming off of a presidency that many were uncomfortable with because it was authoritarian and ignored the norms and rules of democracy? Will we be okay with a presidency that expands the executive power if it helps us as opposed to causing controversy?
The Democrats want Biden’s presidency to mirror FDR’s. And if he can get us out of the crises, we are in that is amazing. But does he really have the strength for that? Do we really have the stomach for that? Would America really support another FDR? I supposed we’ve got just over 100 days to find out.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.