Monday, February 10, 2014
Dr, Anthony Badger, the Paul Mellon Professor of American History at Cambridge University and Master of Clare College, delivered the Belle McWilliams Lecture in U.S. History this evening, speaking on “The Lessons of the New Deal: Has Obama Learned the Right Ones?” The lecture was also sponsored by the Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities.
Dr. Badger was introduced by Dr. Colin Chapell, who as a student at Cambridge had benefitted from the mentoring of Dr. Badger. Dr. Badger quipped that he was delighted to have been asked to leave cold England for America’s “sunny South” (the on-campus temperature when he spoke was about 25 degrees).
There were certain parallels between 1933 and 2009 when two presidents took office — financial crisis, widespread economic distress, even an international conference (in London) to try to arrive at solutions. While still a candidate, Barack Obama, along with his advisers, had been a close student of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, because he and they recognized those parallels. (Dr. Badger noted that shortly after the election of 2008, a news service notified him that Obama had been reading his book, FDR: The First Hundred Days, and so had Peyton Manning, rated as the 14th-most-intellectual football player in the U.S.) Dr. Badger said that Obama had learned several lessons from the New Deal that he intended to apply to the 2009 situation, including the need to spend vast sums of money and not (as Roosevelt had done in 1937) to ease off on that spending too soon.
But in other ways, Obama did not benefit from Roosevelt’s experience. Roosevelt went on from victory in 1932 to win overwhelmingly in 1936, but Obama had a narrow victory in 2012. Roosevelt's New Deal was the defining political episode of the twentieth century, setting the pattern for a vast array of governmental actions to influence economic conditions. Roosevelt even improved on his majorities in Congress in 1936 as well as winning the presidency in a landslide. Obama's administrations have been beset by gridlock, with little to show for accomplishment, and in later elections his party lost its majority in the House of Representatives and its super-majority in the Senate.
What went wrong? Toward the end of his lecture, after considering other differences between Roosevelt and Obama, Dr. Badger suggested that one of the lessons to be learned from Roosevelt's success was “Be lucky.” He had explained earlier that Roosevelt indeed had luck on his side much of the time. In the banking crisis, for example, Roosevelt’s policies were a gamble, but they worked. Neither he nor his advisors had any real plans when he assumed office. A plan quickly cobbled together with the help of Herbert Hoover’s Treasury Department officials existed in only one copy when introduced into the House, which approved it unanimously 43 minutes later (the Senate, with some dissent, took a bit longer). There was no “Plan B,” Dr. Badger said, nowhere to go if the plan failed. In his first “fireside chat” Roosevelt charmed the American people into believing it was safe to put money back into the banks, and it worked. Moreover, Roosevelt for a long time did not have to worry particularly about foreign affairs, which allowed him to concentrate on domestic issues.
Obama has not always had luck on his side. Dr. Badger noted that he did have good fortune in having to run against opponents who created problems for themselves, such as John McCain’s selecting Sarah Palin as a running mate without adequate vetting, and Mitt Romney’s disparaging remarks about 47% of the American voters.
More often, Obama’s luck has gone the other way. Dr. Badger maintained that Obama did save the banks. But concentrating on saving the banks created much resentment, and Dr. Badger asked, “How do you get credit for what didn’t happen?” Although the administration boasted of saving two million jobs, that did not translate as two million jobs created. Roosevelt’s policies employed 250,000 within the first six weeks and millions more in later years. They subsidized farmers and placed a moratorium on foreclosures on mortgages, but Obama’s policies did little to get money into the hands of the public and financial institutions found ways to continue foreclosures.
The situation in the 1930s was so desperate, Dr. Badger maintained, that for quite some time afterward, majorities in both parties felt they had to support the principles of the New Deal (witness Wendell Wilkie in 1940, for example). After 2008 conservatives have felt little or no need at all to support Obama’s policies, maintaining that they impede rather than stimulate recovery and are probably unconstitutional anyway. Polarization is rampant and politicians delight in finding “hot spot” issues on which skewer their opponents. Dr. Badger noted some 250 failures in the Senate to force closure on issues; what used to be unthinkable has become routine.
It is easy enough to blame Republicans for polarization and gridlock, Dr. Badger said, but he also said that Democrats have forgotten how to legislate. Obama has not worked out detailed programs, and what Dr Badger called laziness in organizing campaigns has led to embarrassing defeats at the polls for the Democrats (as with Ted Kennedy). The patrician Roosevelt never forgot that it is impossible to over-flatter the American public, but Obama is perceived as lacking empathy with common people. Roosevelt restored public confidence in the government. As late as 1973, a survey revealed that 75% of the public had faith that the federal government would do the right thing. Already by 1990 that figure had dwindled to 25% and now, Dr. Badger said, it stands at about 10%. Dr Badger judged that one of Obama’s fundamental errors was in staking too much on healthcare reform at the beginning of his administration; Roosevelt, he said, knew that some programs — such as Social Security — had to wait until later in his administration.
Dr Badger ended his lecture on a gloomy note by saying that since the Civil War, no American president has had a successful second term. He sees little hope that things will be different in the future. The issue that seems to be insoluble, he said, is that of entitlements, on which public opinion and party policies diverge widely. Roosevelt could defend Social Security in 1935 on a firm moral ground — that workers were entitled to benefit from the payments they made into the system. There is little agreement these days on the morality of entitlements.
Dr Badger’s book, FDR: The First Hundred Days, was chosen by Prime Minister Gordon Brown as his book of the year for 2008 and is said to have been influential in shaping his response to the recession in the United Kingdom. His other books include Prosperity Road: The New Deal, Tobacco, and North Carolina; North Carolina and the New Deal; and The New Deal: The Depression Years 1933-1940.
In 2009 Gordon Brown appointed him chair of the Kennedy Memorial Trust, which provides full funding for six to eight British post-graduate students to study at either Harvard University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Since 2011 Dr. Badger has been serving as the “colonial files tsar” to oversee the review and transfer to the public domain of the “migrated archives” for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. These are defined by the (UK) National Archives as “a collection of files that were sent to the United Kingdom from some former British territories generally at the time of their independence. The files contain a range of material relating to former colonial administrations, including some material of a sensitive nature covering policy, security, intelligence and other issues.”
Professor Emeritus, Department of History
The University of Memphis