Monday, 19 January 2009

Obama's New Deal

Well, Barack Obama will be sworn in tomorrow – hurrah! – but what a mess he’s taking over.

In anticipation and hope, here’s a clip from my series “American Voices”. It begins with the inauguration in 1933 of my all-time political hero, Franklin Roosevelt, and it describes the extraordinary energy of the early months of his first administration.

FDR inherited a nation with 13 million unemployed. Within a hundred days he’d pushed loan bills through Congress, shoring up the banks, the farmers and homeowners. The Labor Bill followed, and - in 1935 - the creation of the Works Progress Administration, the most wide-ranging and valuable of the New Deal job creation programmes.

The clip quotes Myron Buxton, a member of the WPA interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project. He’d watched with despair at the ‘do-nothing’ approach of Herbert Hoover, and celebrated the fact that FDR was getting his hands dirty. “This country was like a runaway train. We needed some kind of planning just to stay on the rails”.

Here’s the clip:

Of course, it’s easy to be seduced by the successes of the early New Deal. And it’s easy, too, to forget how contentious and divisive it proved. I have an instinctive respect for FDR – but I was provoked, researching the series, by the number of contemporary testimonies I read in the files of the Federal Writers’ Project, dating from 1937 onwards, disparaging Roosevelt as a dangerous radical. These were testimonies of ordinary Americans, most Republican, some Democrat, all of them appalled by spiraling federal spending, and a sense of the sheer inappropriateness of this level of federal interference in local affairs.

We forget, in Britain, how much the American political system operates at a local level. There’s truth, still, in the backwoods image of America as an affiliation of ‘rugged individuals’ gathered in small communities. Charity and welfare is integral to this backwoods system (the ‘good neighbour idea’, described by Roosevelt at the end of the clip), but it’s a local affair – you look after the needy folk next door, or maybe in the next street. (As George Bush put it when Governor of Texas, “we look after our own”).

Imagine how radical it was for FDR to declare to the comfy folk of Connecticut and Massachusetts that their ‘neighbours’ included bums in the Bronx and dustbowl Okies, and that their tax dollars would be spent on massive nationwide federal welfare programmes – or, worse, on programmes like TVA that only benefited one part of the nation. This kind of centralised thinking was truly new, and, to many, utterly distasteful. It smacked of socialism. By the Second New Deal, FDR’s opponents in Congress had regrouped, and he was forced into massive spending cuts.

In the end, the Depression was beaten by the onset of the Second World War, a truly ‘national’ disaster that justified the mass mobilization of labour. There’s the rub, of course – the definition of a ‘national’ disaster. Hurricane Katrina was local – but Bush was lambasted for sitting on his hands. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The current crisis is surely ‘national’ by any definition, and Obama, like FDR, will get involved. We’ll have a new ‘hundred days’, federal spending will soar, and liberal America will applaud. For a while, some Republicans may even rally behind him. But, in time, the battle lines will reform, and a new anti-New Deal backlash will emerge.

From the homesteads of Nebraska and the country clubs of South Virginia, we’ll hear the sound of tut-tutting and teeth sucking. Hundreds of millions of decent and kind Americans will paraphrase the words of Ronald Reagan, delivered in his first inaugural address thirty years ago: government isn’t the solution, it’s part of the problem. And Obama will be forced into compromise and retreat. Ah well. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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