On a December day in 1932, with the country prostrate under the weight of the Great Depression, ex-president Calvin Coolidge — who had presided over the reckless stock market boom of the Jazz Age Twenties (and famously declaimed that “the business of America is business”) — confided to a friend: “We are in a new era to which I do not belong.” He punctuated those words, a few weeks later, by dying.
A similar premonition grips the popular imagination today. A new era beckons. No person has been more responsible for arousing that expectation than President-elect Barack Obama. From beginning to end, his presidential campaign was born aloft by invocations of the “fierce urgency of now,” by “change we can believe in,” by “yes, we can!” and by the obvious significance of his race and generation. Not surprisingly then, as the gravity of the national economic calamity has become terrifyingly clearer, yearnings for salvation have attached themselves ever more firmly to the incoming administration.
This is as it should be — and as it once was. When in March 1933, a few months after Coolidge gave up the ghost, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated president, people looked forward to audacious changes, even if they had little or no idea just what, in concrete terms, that might mean. If Coolidge, an iconic representative of the old order, knew that the ancien régime was dead, millions of ordinary Americans had drawn the same conclusion years earlier. Full of fear, depressed and disillusioned, they nonetheless had an appetite for the untried. Like Obama, FDR had, during his campaign, encouraged feverish hopes with no less vaporous references to a “new deal” for Americans.
Brain Trust vs Brainiacs
Yet today, something is amiss. Even if everyone is now using the Great Depression and the New Deal as benchmarks for what we’re living through, Act I of the new script has already veered away from the original.
A suffocating political and intellectual provincialism has captured the new administration in embryo. Instead of embracing a sense of adventurousness, a readiness to break with the past so enthusiastically promoted during the campaign, Obama seems overcome with inhibitions and fears.
Practically without exception he has chosen to staff his government at its highest levels with refugees from the Clinton years. This is emphatically true in the realms of foreign and economic policy. It would, in fact, be hard to find an original idea among the new appointees being called to power in those realms — some way of looking at the American empire abroad or the structure of power and wealth at home that departs radically from views in circulation a decade or more ago. A team photo of Obama’s key cabinet and other appointments at Treasury, Health and Human Services, Commerce, the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, the State Department, the Pentagon, the National Security Council, and in the U.S. Intelligence Community, not to speak of senior advisory posts around the President himself, could practically have been teleported from perhaps the year 1995.
Recycled Clintonism is recycled neo-liberalism. This is change only the brainiacs from Hyde Park and Harvard Square could believe in. Only the experts could get hot under the collar about the slight differences between “behavioral economics” (the latest academic fad that fascinates some high level Obama-ites) and straight-up neo-liberal deference to the market. And here’s the sobering thing: despite the grotesque extremism of the Bush years, neo-liberalism also served as its ideological magnetic north.
Is this parochialism, this timorousness and lack of imagination, inevitable in a period like our own, when the unknown looms menacingly and one natural reaction is certainly to draw back, to find refuge in the familiar? Here, the New Deal years can be instructive.
Roosevelt was no radical; indeed, he shared many of the conservative convictions of his class and times. He believed deeply in both balanced budgets and the demoralizing effects of relief on the poor. He tried mightily to rally the business community to his side. For him, the labor movement was terra incognita and — though it may be hard to believe today — played no role in his initial policy and political calculations. Nonetheless, right from the beginning, Roosevelt cobbled together a cabinet and circle of advisers strikingly heterogeneous in its views, one that, by comparison, makes Obama’s inner sanctum, as it is developing today, look like a sectarian cult.
Heterogeneous does not mean radical. Some of FDR’s early appointments — as at the Treasury Department — were die-hard conservatives. Jesse Jones, who ran the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a Hoover administration creation, retained by FDR, that had been designed to rescue tottering banks, railroads, and other enterprises too big to fail, was a practitioner of business-friendly bailout capitalism before present Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was even born.
But there was also Henry Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture, a Midwestern progressive who would become the standard bearer for the most left-leaning segments of the New Deal coalition. He was joined at the Agriculture Department — far more important then than now — by men like Mordecai Ezekiel, who was prepared to challenge the power of the country’s landed oligarchs.
Then there were corporatists like Raymond Moley, Donald Richberg, and General Hugh Johnson. Moley was an original member of FDR’s legendary “brain trust” (a small group of the President’s most influential advisers who often held no official government position). Richberg and Johnson helped design and run the National Recovery Administration (the New Deal’s first and failed attempt at industrial recovery). All three men were partial to the interests of the country’s peak corporations. All three wanted them released from the strictures of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act so that they could collaborate in setting prices and wages to arrest the killing deflation that gripped the economy. But they also wanted these corporate behemoths and the codes of competition they promulgated subjected to government oversight and restraints.
Meanwhile, Felix Frankfurter (another confidant of FDR’s and a future Supreme Court justice), aided by the behind-the-scenes efforts of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, fiercely contested the influence of the corporatists within the new administration, favoring anti-trust and then-new Keynesian approaches to economic recovery. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins used her extensive ties to the social work community and the labor movement to keep an otherwise tone-deaf president apprised of portentous rumblings from that quarter. In this fashion, she eased the way for the passage of the Wagner Act that legislated the right to organize and bargain collectively, and that ended the reign of industrial autocracy in the workplace.
Roosevelt’s “brain trust” also included Rexford Tugwell. He was an avid proponent of government economic planning. Another founding member of the “brain trust” was Adolph Berle, who had published a bestselling, scathing indictment of the financial and social irresponsibility of the corporate elite just before FDR assumed office.
People like Tugwell and others, including future Federal Reserve Board chairman Marriner Eccles, were believers in Keynesian deficit spending as the road to recovery and argued fiercely for this position within the inner councils of the administration, even while Roosevelt himself remained, until later in his presidency, an orthodox budget balancer.
All of these people — the corporatists and the Keynesians, the planners and the anti-trusters — were there at the creation. They often came to blows. A genuine administration of “rivals” didn’t faze FDR. He was deft at borrowing all of, or pieces of, their ideas, then jettisoning some when they didn’t work, and playing one faction against another in a remarkable display of political agility. Roosevelt’s tolerance of real differences stands in stark contrast to the new administration’s cloning of the Clinton-era brainiacs…
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Steve Fraser is a visiting professor at New York University and the author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace. He is a regular contributor to TomDispatch.com and co-founder of the American Empire Project (Metropolitan Books).
Copyright 2008 Steve Fraser