How did President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first term respond to unprecedented unemployment in the Great Depression? He threw everything he could think of at it, an alphabet soup of spending programs and jobs programs, including the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act.
FDR created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Civil Works Administration to distribute stimulus funding to states and cities. He created the Civilian Conservation Corps which gave training and employment to millions of young unemployed Americans. The Works Progress Administration provided employment for additional millions of Americans. Social Security was created to provide relief and old-age pensions. The National Labor Relations Act strengthened the rights of American workers to bargain collectively.
Whenever one of his ideas was blocked by Republicans or overturned by the courts, he would just try something else. The deficit spending forced the Roosevelt administration to both borrow more money, increasing the national debt, and to raise taxes.
The passionate opposition to FDR’s jobs program exceeded the enmity directed at President Obama today. But FDR responded in kind. The speech he delivered at Madison Square Garden on October 31, 1936, rings as powerfully today as it did then. Can you imagine President Obama delivering a speech like this:
“For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
Historians and economists can argue all they want over how effective FDR’s various initiatives were in stimulating the economy and creating jobs. But the American people re-elected President Roosevelt not just once, but an unprecedented three times, each time by huge majorities, making him the longest-serving U.S. president.
Americans in hard times want a president who is fighting for them. Whether particular initiatives succeed or fail, get passed or get blocked, get upheld or overturned by the courts, is all less important than having a leader who understands their suffering and who is working every day to make their lives less difficult. They had that in FDR.
Will we see the same understanding and responsiveness in President Obama’s jobs plan to be announced on Thursday?