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Where’s FDR When You Need Him?

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Library of Congress)

Seventy-five years ago, Mar. 4, 1933, with the Great Depression deepening, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration heralded the most productive, dynamic domestic reform program since the Civil War. It would be reform within a democratic framework. At that time, fascism, communism and militarism appeared as energetic waves of the future, triumphant and energetic compared to democratic states that languished in economic decline.

Despite his detractors, then and now, Roosevelt energized popular government — and American democracy emerged stronger with his presidency. New Deal programs, combining relief, recovery and reform, and, ultimately aided by World War II and the Cold War, revitalized capitalism, launching an era of unprecedented prosperity. FDR’s Inaugural Address opened on an auspicious note: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Roosevelt readily captured the new medium of radio, offering a voice of boundless optimism and hope; while his 1932 opponent, Herbert Hoover, used radio awkwardly. Hoover’s dark and somber prophecies of doom should FDR be elected seemed to match the prevalent pessimism of the time.

Roosevelt’s achievements in maintaining a prosperous, democratic society are now dimmed as George W. Bush’s administration comes to an end. Bush has flouted accountability, he has gutted effective economic regulation and he has circumvented the traditional workings of American government. Whether dealing with domestic issues or crusades abroad, Bush has left us a vastly different nation in seven short years.

The Bush practice of “trickle-down” economics, similar to Hoover’s depression remedies, are in stark contrast to Roosevelt’s direct relief measures for those needing help at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Surveying the magnitude and economic paralysis wrought by the Great Depression, FDR said extraordinary and emergency measures, propelled by a vigorous national government, were necessary for the United States to survive. He assaulted unscrupulous “money changers” who “faced by failure of credit, . . .have proposed only the lending of more money.“ Compared with today’s standards of virtually unregulated new banking practices, they were pikers.

Roosevelt offered no empty attack on “government spending.” He made no recommendations for permanent tax cuts for the very wealthy, instead, he directly confronted the nation’s financial disarray left by the banking system. Above all, he did not foster fear to govern.

Roosevelt proclaimed that “our greatest primary task is to put people to work.” The government, he proposed, would recruit workers for public works projects and provide work which in turn “would stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources.” FDR insisted that the Depression was analogous to an emergency of war, and the government would respond accordingly.

The New Deal launched vast public works projects, expanding and improving the nation’s infrastructure. The Works Progress Administration and Public Works Administration built roads, parks and airports. It employed people on cultural and historical projects, including the collection of slave narratives, public art and various records’ collections.

Now-forgotten conservatives railed against the public works program as a boondoggle but it is a historical marker for an imaginative and successful governmental effort to provide for the general welfare. More than eight million people, working on more than one million projects, benefited from the programs. We can recognize the physical achievements easily enough, but the intangible of providing gainful employment and instilling self-respect for productive work is beyond measure.

Public works essentially provided recovery and relief. But the Roosevelt administration’s enduring legacy came from its reform measures, most notably the Social Security Act. The administration also laid down numerous reform programs, including legislation and regulatory commissions for banking, securities, communications and labor practices.

However deep our current economic weakness, we have not approached the catastrophe that was the Great Depression. But the times, then as now, demand that government vigorously recognize and fulfill its responsibilities for “the general welfare,” as the Constitution mandates.

Since Roosevelt’s time, the government has recognized its broad responsibilities under the “general welfare” clause and the need to protect its citizens. The flooding of New Orleans a few years ago should have been the occasion for a vigorous governmental response.

Instead, while a great deal of federal money has been spent, much of New Orleans housing is still uninhabitable and the latest administration point man on the rebuilding resigned last week.

By most accounts – even, to some extent, the Bush administration’s – the U.S. economy is floundering. The American dollar is steadily falling to new lows. The credit crisis is still growing. The looming problem will be if the foreign money that sustains U.S. debt decides to reconsider current portfolios. The administration’s plans for a tax rebate, a tepid job re-training program, and other easy palliatives are out of touch with what appear to be deep, structural defects in our economy. Meanwhile, Citibank and other major funders sell more of themselves to foreign governments.

“Extraordinary” measures “propelled by a vigorous national government,” not paltry measures like a few-hundred-dollar rebate are clearly needed to attack the shortcomings of the U.S. economy. The adminstration is saying that taxpayers will spend that money to jump-start a lagging economy, and the flood of consumption will create more jobs. Ours is a consumer-driven economy, after all.

But, at best, the government offers only a band-aid to seduce people into believing it is doing something. And when we recover from our “spending spree,” what will the government then provide? Momentary tax rebates are the equivalent of Roman circuses.

In 1932, Walter Lippmann, the prominent public philosopher, described FDR as merely “a pleasant young man,” without any particular qualifications, who very much wanted to be president of the United States. Indeed, FDR had little in his record that the public could have anticipated a president worthy of the company of Washington and Lincoln. A week after the inauguration, Lippmann – certainly no stranger to changing his mind – praised the new president: “In one week the nation, which had lost confidence in everything and everybody, has regained confidence in the government and itself.”

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) talks of her “experience,” Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) offers“hope,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) promises “economy” and to capture Osama bin Laden. Each very much wants to be president of the United States.

Who knows? Their thin words might or might not yet deliver a leader to restore our standing and image abroad, to stimulate economic recovery, to spurn torture, to respect the separation of powers, to rein in the malevolent growth of the American empire, and begin to heal the conflicts and divisions that have haunted us for the past quarter-century and more.

They should consider Franklin Roosevelt as a worthy model to emulate.

Stanley Kutler is the author of “Privilege Creative Destruction: The Charles River Bridge Case” and “Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes.” He is the E. Gordon Fox Emeritus Professor of American Institutions at the University of Wisconsin, and also professor of law.

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