The left and the right don’t agree on much these days, but they do agree on this: Barack Obama is no FDR.
For liberals, this is a disappointment. They had hoped for, as Time magazine put it after Obama’s victory, “a new new deal.” Instead, they find themselves mounting an unexpected rear-guard defense of Medicare and Keynesian economics.
For conservatives, it’s a relief. Two short years ago, they feared an FDR-like realignment. Today, they thrill to the idea of undoing much of the original New Deal, or at least the Great Society.
But for political scientists and historians of the Great Depression, the agonies and ecstasies of both sides are a continual annoyance — an example of how the past and the present are distorted by America’s fixation on the president and inattention to almost everything else in the political system.
In “Reaching for a New Deal,” Theda Skocpol and Lawrence Jacobs recall with bemusement the sepia-tinged excitement that greeted Obama’s victory in 2008. What the FDR-obsessed pundits missed, the two political scientists say, was that “the timing, nature, and severity” of the economic crises the two presidents faced were very different.
Franklin D. Roosevelt won the presidency in 1932, three years into the Great Depression. The unemployment rate that year was 23.6 percent. Obama won the presidency in 2008, mere months into the financial crisis; unemployment was at 6.8 percent. Consequently, the two presidents faced political systems prepared to do very different things.
In his new book, “The New Deal: A Modern History,” Michael Hiltzik makes clear that though FDR was an unusually energetic and ambitious president, he was paired with an unusually energetic and ambitious Congress.
Take the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which ended traditional bank runs by insuring commercial bank deposits. FDR opposed it. He believed that “the weak banks will pull down the strong.” But senators from rural states represented those small, weak banks. Deposit insurance was part of the price they exacted to pass the Glass-Steagall banking law. “You will have to come to a deposit guarantee eventually, Cap’n,” Roosevelt’s vice president, John Nance Garner, told him. He did — but only because Congress forced him into it.
This happened again and again throughout the New Deal. FDR wanted to go far. But Congress often wanted to go further — occasionally over the president’s objections. To pass his farm bill, Hiltzik writes, Roosevelt had to accept “an amendment sponsored by Senator Elmer Thomas of Oklahoma authorizing the President to inflate the dollar by coining silver, printing money (creating a devalued class of currency known as “greenbacks”), deliberately devaluing the dollar by reducing its gold content, or . . . undertaking any inflationary method he chose.”
The cost for passing the bill, in other words, was accepting a massive expansion of executive power. It was an expansion that FDR didn’t want. He acceded to it only because he feared that the next amendment would force him to employ a particular method of inflation. Compare that with the current situation, in which Republicans and Democrats alike have forced the Federal Reserve to forswear even the most modest impulse to experiment with inflation.
In another example with relevance to today’s debates, FDR’s second legislative initiative was the Economy Act, which sought to establish the new president’s deficit-hawk bona fides by slashing federal salaries and veterans’ benefits. In 1934, Congress overturned the legislation. “It entirely changed the president’s attitude,” Sen. James F. Byrnes (D-S.C.) said later. “He immediately became the leader of those who were advocating liberal spending.”
The New Deal Congress did occasionally curtail Roosevelt’s more ambitious initiatives. The president had envisioned a universal Social Security system, but Congress rewrote the legislation to exclude domestic workers and agricultural employees, among others. That meant that some of society’s neediest were locked out of the program. The Obama administration, which had to settle for a health-care bill that left out a third of the uninsured, can sympathize.
Still, the basic truths of the period remain: By the time Roosevelt took the presidency, the Great Depression had done so much damage that Congress was ready to do something, anything, to end it. At times, FDR harnessed that energy in service of his agenda. At other times, Congress forced him to go further than he had intended.
For better or worse, that is a very different dynamic than the one that has prevailed during Obama’s presidency. It is hard to come up with even one example of Congress forcing Obama to go further than he wished, and easy to come up with many in which they forced the president to trim his sails.
This is not a defense of Obama, nor an attack on FDR. It is simply the reality of the American presidency. Congress can write legislation and pass it over the president’s veto. The president cannot write legislation nor pass it without congressional assent. The president comes after the Congress in the Constitution and is indisputably less powerful. Yet we understand American politics primarily through the office of the president and attribute, say, things that happened between 1933 and 1945 to FDR, or from 1981 to 1988 to Ronald Reagan. But Congress is always there, and so is the economic context that’s driving the agenda. We’d do well to pay more attention to both.