Roosevelt delivers first "Fireside Chat"

Turning back the clock

Political Analysis | An Obama victory, if coupled with big Democratic wins in Congress, could take the country back to 1933

Issue: "Unify and conquer," June 14, 2008

If Barack Obama wins in November and comes in with a sizeable congressional majority, we're likely to see, early in 2009, the most radical legislation since the New Deal. And so it's appropriate to revisit Franklin Roosevelt's first 100 days, which began with his March 4, 1933 inaugural. Seventy-five years ago this coming week FDR's big push climaxed with the National Industrial Recovery Act, officially known as the Act of June 16, 1933, which established the National Recovery Administration (NRA).

One big difference between then and now, though, is that in 1933 the materially depressed United States was in crisis, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt needed to act. His effective rhetoric did lift American spirits, and that was important. Yet New Deal programs that rolled through a Congress of 313 Democrats and 117 Republicans ended up prolonging the Depression, as historian Amity Shlaes and many others have convincingly shown (see WORLD, March 8).

The NRA established a bureaucracy that led even the FDR-supportive Washington Post to note "the difficulty the business man has in keeping informed of these codes, supplemental codes, code amendments, executive orders, administrative orders, office orders, interpretations, rules, regulations and obiter dicta." The NRA would not allow prices to be lowered, so millions of people did not buy what they could not afford. The NRA demanded above-market wage rates for those newly hired, and the result was prolongation of high unemployment as businesses were reluctant to make hires.

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Roosevelt could push through such government-growing legislation not only because of congressional dominance: Like Obama, he artfully used biblical allusions. In his first inaugural address, for example, FDR argued that America's land was bountiful and should be productive, but the problem was that "unscrupulous money changers . . . have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish." Then came the good news: "The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths."

The political application of these New Testament references soon became clear: Roosevelt wanted to increase federal power through "national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and communications and other utilities which have a definitely public character." The era of big government had begun. Roosevelt threatened to become dictatorial if Congress balked. "I shall then ask the Congress for . . . the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe."

Barack Obama is following Rooseveltian rules by being mellifluous rather than strident when he calls for government expansion. FDR calmed some critics by saying, "It is wholly wrong to call the measures that we have taken Government control of farming, industry, and transportation. It is rather a partnership." He complained of "a loss of spiritual values" in America and proposed to "add to the comfort and happiness of hundreds of thousands of people" so that they would feel more at ease and more able to spiritually soar.

That was sweet-talking, but Roosevelt was also adept at practical politics. Depression-era property tax revenues were down, so city officials had less money to spend. Demands from constituents for jobs and other favors were up. When New York City Democrats in 1933 laid off city employees and reduced services, Republican Fiorello La Guardia won election as mayor. Democratic urban machines across the country needed money, and fast, if they were to avoid similarly unceremonious boots-and Roosevelt's radically increased spending rescued them.

For example, Roosevelt gave Chicago Mayor Edward J. Kelly funds that enabled him to build a subway, airport, new roads and parks, public housing projects, and 30 new schools. Since the federal government paid 88 percent of Chicago's relief and jobs costs, the state government 11 percent and the city itself only one penny of every dollar, Kelly did not have to raise property taxes to pay for these projects. He received new terms as mayor in 1935, 1939, and 1943, and delivered Illinois to Roosevelt four times.

City by city, Roosevelt also used the urban machines to turn out people at marches and demonstrations that he then cited as proof of popular support for his programs. Many economists opposed the National Recovery Administration, with its price-fixing and wage-setting schedules. They complained about the biggest non-wartime intrusion on economic freedom in American history.

News pages, though, played up the human interest of 100,000 children assembled on the Boston Common to repeat this pledge: "I promise as a good American citizen to do my part for the NRA. I will buy only where the Blue Eagle flies. . . . I will help President Roosevelt bring back good times."


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