The New Deal's Debut Wasn't Smooth Sailing, EitherHistorians in the News
tags: Barack Obama, FDR, Obamacare, New Deal
Alf Landon has been largely forgotten by history, but conservatives today ought to refresh their memories. Landon, a Republican, challenged President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1936 election on a platform of repealing Social Security—before the program had even begun. FDR won in a landslide, taking all states but two. It’s “another parallel that’s spooky,” says Michael Hiltzik, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The New Deal: A Modern History. In that 2011 book, the Los Angeles Times columnist reexamined FDR’s hallmark legislation and how the country was steered—and sometimes stumbled—through the Great Depression. Given Obamacare's disastrous debut, we asked Hiltzik for some historical perspective on the New Deal's rollout.
Jennifer Kirby: The big question right now is Obamacare. It’s facing a lot of criticism, and also snags in terms of the legislation’s rollout. What parallels do you see in the rollout of New Deal programs that we’re now seeing with Obamacare?
Michael Hiltzik: The New Deal was really dozens of individual programs, and some of them were well thought-out, and some of them were not very well thought-out, and not many of them worked perfectly out of the box. It depended a lot on what the goal was, it depended on how they were designed, and how hastily they were designed.
The very first New Deal relief program, which was the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC), was created during the 100 days, the very beginning of the Roosevelt administration. That worked well in many ways. But the way it was set up, the administration of the program was put in the hands of local state officials because the federal government didn’t really have a system in place to manage it centrally, and what that did in certain states, particularly places like Mississippi and Georgia, it institutionalized a lot of racism.
You had the WPA (Works Project Administration), which was probably the most famous work relief program that the New Deal created and of course that came under a huge amount of criticism because a lot of the projects that the WPA funded were manifestly make-work projects. They only existed to put people to work on the spot, to put money in their hands to put food on the table, shelter over their heads. It wasn’t like the Public Works Administration, which built bridges, and dams, and highways, and school buildings, which was designed to leave a legacy for the country. It got a lot of criticism from conservatives in Congress that it was just wasting money.