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FDR's legacy and Joe Biden's greatest challenge

by David Riemer and June Hopkins

Originally published at The Hill

When Joe Biden gave his acceptance speech as president-elect, he referred to “FDR in 1932 — promising a beleaguered country a New Deal.” 

Biden and his backers have frequently compared the crises Roosevelt faced in 1932 with the crises Biden faces today. Acting boldly like FDR, it seems, is what Biden intends to do.

Any U.S. president who acts boldly, however, must proceed within the three areas where the federal government has responsibility.

First, public safety. It’s the federal government’s job to protect us from threats to our safety, including our health.

Second, economic security. Americans now expect the federal government to ensure that adults have the jobs, wages, income and health care needed to provide a decent standard of living for themselves and their families.

Third, an effective market. Ours is a market economy. It is the federal government’s responsibility to ensure, through sound regulation, that the market works properly. 

Franklin Roosevelt provided extraordinary leadership in all three areas. 

In the second part of FDR’s presidency (1939-1945), he focused on safety. From 1939 to 1941, FDR strengthened the military and launched Lend-Lease. After Pearl Harbor, he galvanized the U.S. war effort that crushed Germany and Japan.

During the first part of FDR’s presidency (1933-1938), he led the “bold, persistent experimentation” aimed at meeting the federal government’s two other responsibilities: economic security and an effective market. 

To improve economic security, Roosevelt’s New Deal provided unemployed workers with jobs in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Civil Works Administration (CWA) and Works Progress Administration (WPA), as well as Unemployment Insurance. The New Deal raised wages, legalized collective bargaining and created Social Security Old Age Pensions for often-destitute seniors. 

Roosevelt simultaneously worked with Congress to resuscitate a market that had collapsed. FDR quickly signed laws to revive the nation’s banks and restore the integrity of the stock exchanges. These measures — combined with “priming the pump” via increasing federal spending — in time helped rejuvenate the economy.  

Biden, too, needs to act on all three fronts of federal responsibility: public safety, economic security and an effective market. 

But there are big differences between how Roosevelt tackled the crises he faced from 1933-1945 and what Biden must do starting Inauguration Day 2021.

First, Biden must act immediately to protect the public’s safety. FDR was able to wait six years. Biden will not have that luxury. He must begin on day one to attack the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Second, Biden has no choice but to simultaneously tackle our health crisis, and our economic security crisis and our market effectiveness crisis. 

The third big difference will make it easier for Biden to succeed. 

When FDR took office, he had virtually nothing to build on. There was no federal system of economic security. Nor was there any federal system of comprehensive market regulation. 

Biden has this inheritance to build on. 

But act — and act boldly — he must. Indeed, if Biden is to succeed, he must go far beyond driving down unemployment and restoring the market to the troubled position they occupied before COVID-19 fouled America’s economy.  

Restoring this status quo ante is insufficient. To achieve economic security, Biden needs to create millions of transitional jobs, modeled on the New Deal’s CWA and WPA. Biden should also expand unemployment insurance to the millions of workers now excluded. 

The new president also needs to raise the minimum wage well above $10 per hour, make it easier to form unions and bargain, and guarantee all workers paid leave. 

Biden also needs to raise — well above the poverty line — the minimum disability benefit and the minimum Social Security retirement payment. Improving the Affordable Care Act (ACA), to provide millions of uninsured individuals with health insurance, is imperative.

In addition Biden must act to improve the effectiveness of the overall market. Achieving this outcome means protecting the environment from harm, ending wage theft and safeguarding consumers and investors from deception and harm. 

Like all of us, Biden lives in the House that FDR Built. Thanks to the New Deal, he begins with a rich legacy of federal policy that he has the power to reshape. He can add policies to fill gaps. He can fix existing policies that are deficient.

Will Biden have the wisdom to see his challenges in these terms? Will he recognize that his primary task, beyond ending the pandemic, is to construct a 21st century New Deal?

If he does, he may go down in history as one of America’s great presidents.

David Riemer is a senior advisor on the Workforce for Social Security Works and author of “Putting Government In Its Place: The Case for a New Deal 3.0.” 

Dr. June Hopkins is the granddaughter of Harry Hopkins, professor emerita at Georgia Southern University, Armstrong Campus, and author of “Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer.” 

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