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.
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."
Combining religious rhetoric and power politics, Roosevelt consistently tried to show his followers that they could construct a stairway to heaven. To do that, however, he had to dump on the private efforts that apparently could build the stairway only halfway up: Bennington College professor James McCamy concluded that New Deal publicists were deliberately trying to discredit private institutions so as to promote a "shift of loyalty from private to public authority and decision."
MIT economist John Gruber last year confirmed that Roosevelt succeeded in having New Deal governmental programs crowd out private giving. "Church relief made up 90 percent of the income of the poor before the New Deal," he found out: "Government relief made up 90 percent of the income of the poor after the New Deal." Gruber found that church and charitable giving held up well in 1929 after the stock market crash and did not drop until 1933 when the New Deal began. Then and only then did church spending for charitable purposes fall by one-third.
But, due to a conservative Supreme Court, the federal government did not grow as fast as Roosevelt wished. The justices in 1935 found the NRA to be an unconstitutional depriving of liberty, and FDR temporarily backtracked-only to come out swinging in his reelection campaign. Throughout 1936 Roosevelt alternated fiery speeches with pastorals, such as the one he gave in North Carolina based on the 23rd Psalm's teaching: "He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters."
Roosevelt argued that the declarations about God from 3,000 years ago could be replaced by declarations coming from Washington now: If wages were raised, those who "work in the mill or in the office" could have "a life in green pastures and beside still waters." Voters preferred that hope to the medicine GOP candidate Alf Landon offered, and Democratic domination of Capitol Hill became so great that only 88 Republicans were left to wander disconsolately through the House chamber.
How can today's Republicans, in their down year, preserve the checks and balances that often keep bad bills from becoming law? One way is for John McCain to win. Another way, if he seems headed for defeat, is for Republicans to stress the importance of a congressional check on presidential radicalism.
Columnist John Fund tells of what happened in 1996 when Bob Dole was clearly going to lose: "The Republican National Committee decided to take bold action by directly appealing to the public's fondness for divided government and fear of one-party rule. . . . The announcer warned what could happen if Democrats swept the elections: 'Remember the last time Democrats ran everything? The largest tax increase in history. Government-run health care. More wasteful spending. Who wants that again?'" Fund reports, "It worked. Republicans gained two seats in the Senate and lost only a handful in the House."
It's too early to resort to such a strategy now: McCain is running close to Obama in polls and leading in battleground states such as Ohio and Florida. But if Obama makes a slight bow to pro-life sentiment (and I would welcome such a move on his part), it's not too early to think through Plan B.