“When Government Helped”: Comparing FDR and Obama

“When Government Helped” brings together a number of essays that contrast President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” Great Depression policies with those of President Obama as he tries to cope with the present Great Recession. It’s profoundly thought provoking.

Just reading the notes at the end of every chapter is an education. The writers’ research is deep and wide.

I couldn’t stop talking about this book all the time I was reading it, and can’t stop talking about it now. Like a lot of people, I’ve heard different assessments of the “New Deal” all my life. Some say it ended the Depression, some say it was totally ineffective and that only the coming of World War II stopped the economic crisis. Some say that some of the alphabet soup of New Deal programs (such as WPA, the Works Progress Administration) should have been extended through the war and should be still in effect today. This would certainly be true of the New Deal’s environmental efforts. Until I read this book, I didn’t even know enough to form an opinion.

Of the many theses proved in this scholarly work, the greatest kills off Ronald Reagan’s argument that “government is not the solution, it is the problem.” In both periods considered, Great Depression and Great Recession, government had to step in decisively to save capitalism from itself. More to the point, government had to rescue the victims of capitalism.

Of the two presidents considered, Obama comes off the less effective. The editors particularly underline the difference between the current “top down” approach of saving the banks first and the “bottom up” New Deal approach of providing meaningful jobs for the unemployed. Of course, the editors note the great differences between the situations faced by FDR and Barack Obama. FDR’s Democratic Party usually had strong majorities in Congress and these were boosted, in many cases, by powerful social movements. Neither president is treated in the book as a saint or savior, but both are evaluated as politicians confronted with great economic crises.

On looking back through this excellent book, I wonder that it never mentions one of the greatest differences between what Obama faced and what FDR faced: the existence and nonexistence of the Soviet Union. Roosevelt could argue against his capitalist detractors that socialism was urgent and imminent in the physical presence of the Soviets, while President Obama didn’t have such a convenient bogeyman when big money criticized his efforts.

“When Government Helped” should be read and treasured. It’s the reader that gets the help now.

“When Government Helped”
Sheila D Collins and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, eds.
2013, Oxford University Press, 360 pages, paperback or ebook