Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A “New Deal” Model for the Obama Cabinet

11-26-08, 11:21 am

As appointments and stories of appointments to President-elect Obama’s cabinet fill mass media, the interest in Doris Kearns Godwin’s fascinating study, Team of Rivals, which deals with Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War cabinet has been mentioned prominently.

The purpose of these accounts seems to be to encourage President Obama to establish something like a “national unity” cabinet. The idea is to put political rivals like Hillary Clinton prominent positions in major cabinet positions. In today's context, unlike Lincoln’s situation during the Civil War, it would mean having Democrats and perhaps one or two Republicans in the cabinet to the right of the President.

If the country were facing a non-nuclear World War and President Obama had already established the main lines of his domestic policies, this might make some sense. For example, Franklin Roosevelt appointed Henry Stimson, Herbert Hoover’s former Secretary of State, as Secretary of War as the US moved toward World War II. Roosevelt also gave his corporate “rivals” a major incentive to produce for the war effort by establishing a war production program that both guaranteed them high profits and was administered largely by their own executives.

But the crisis the nation and the world face today is that of a looming world depression. A “New Deal” model for the new cabinet makes much more sense for both Obama and the people.

A “New Deal” model for the cabinet would begin to consolidate President Obama’s victory by creating the “Center-Left” administration that is necessary to both contain the likely depression and also end for the rightwing domination of US politics over the last thirty years which the electorate has rejected

After his victory in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt faced a depression that was veering toward total economic collapse. While he appointed “regular” Democrats to his cabinet, including Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Attorney General Homer Cummings, and others, he also began appoint to high cabinet positions “new people,” progressives from academic and activist backgrounds who had continued to fight against right-wing domination in the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover years of the 1920s.

These included the Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, a long-time progressive activist in Illinois politics and enemy of the Chicago political machine who would distinguish himself as an advocate of economic planning and also an opponent of racism. (Up to then, there had been very few open opponents of racism in the federal government since the end of Reconstruction.) When Roosevelt asked Ickes how he should inform the mayor of Chicago about his appointment, Ickes allegedly said “with an oxygen tent.”

Roosevelt also appointed Henry A. Wallace, an agricultural economist, plant geneticist, and editor of an influential newspaper for farmers. Wallace was an advocate of a wide variety of policies aimed at production planning, soil conservation, and education to protect both working farmers and produce a more abundant agriculture.

From his own circles, Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins, the first woman to hold a cabinet position, as Secretary of Labor. Perkins was a champion of the abolition of child labor and strong supporter of national economic planning in the interest of workers and consumers. Also from the Roosevelt circle was Harry Hopkins, a professional social worker with a unique ability to get things done quickly. Hopkins served in a number of major capacities, most importantly as director of the Works Progress Administration, the most ambitious and successful public works/employment program in US history.

Hopkins saw the interests of the poor and the unemployed as his first priority and used his organizational skills to help them as quickly as possible. Others, including progressive attorney David E. Lilienthal, would serve as director of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the New Deal’s hugely successful public power regional development program. (TVA was perhaps the most important program denounced by the right as “socialism.") TVA was and is a program based on public ownership and development of energy that produced major economic development and raised the living standards of an impoverished region).

Along with others, these people were the leadership cadre that came to be known as the “New Dealers.” They worked alongside organization and conservative Democrats, including those who were unsympathetic to the New Deal as anything but a meal ticket for themselves. To the outrage of conservatives, the administration also began to develop new crisis agencies with powers to supersede the existing cabinet bureaucracies. While this created all sorts of intergovernmental conflicts, it also sparked important policy innovations and enabled the administration to experiment with policy as it moved to work with labor-led mass movements to both regulate capital at a much higher level than before and to implement major reforms in the interest of the people.

This really did constitute a “sea change” in government and public policy. This shift in implementing policy won the loyalties of a divided and battered working class, inspired large numbers of progressive activists to see the opportunity of working with as against the federal government and, even with the major reversals of the cold war period, including of course the political purges and outright persecution of the left of the New Deal’s center left coalition, and put major reforms in the peoples interest into place.

What would a “New Deal” model mean for an Obama administration today? Here are a few suggestions. First President Obama might look to longtime progressive activists whose names would produce the same sort of reaction that Harold Ickes and Frances Perkins and Harry Hopkins did to the corporate leadership and conservatives in the 1930s. Marion Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund might be a good choice for Secretary of Education. Lani Guinier, whom Bill Clinton abandoned for a federal position in response to the attacks on her by Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing radio “entertainers” 16 years ago, might make a fine Attorney General.

President Obama might also begin to create new activist agencies on the New Deal model. A new WPA could deal directly with both infrastructure revitalization and unemployment, a state and municipalities aid administration (SMEA), to directly aid state and municipalities, a Federal Energy Authority (FEA) on the TVA model to begin to both develop public energy and also alternative energy sources on a national level.

He could also appoint pro-labor administrators and staff to the National Labor RB who were there in its early years as a way to reverse decades of anti-labor policies. Along with the Employee Free Choice Act (and hopefully the eventual complete repeal of both Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin) such an NLRB would play a positive role in what is most desperately needed, a massive union organizing drive which will bring many millions of new workers into the trade union movement.

Obama will have to confront the problem of the significant number of federal Civil Service appointees who come out of right-wing conservative societies and “think tanks” like the Federalist Society, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, who I imagine will do what they can to undermine the implementation of progressive policies. I am not suggesting the kind of harassment that the Bush administration used against civil servants who opposed their political agenda. But, the New Deal government used new agencies to work around such people, who were, given the size of the federal government far less of problem to a progressive administration than they will be today.

Roosevelt also surrounded himself with a “brain trust” drawn from academic and legal backgrounds that reflected the center-left orientation of his administration. Such policy advisors in the Obama administration would serve as a healthy antidote to the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Federal Society policy planners and advisors who have staffed the Bush administration. There are progressive policy organizations that President Obama can and should look to develop a “brain trust” rather than the sort of Democratic Leadership Council organization men and women and “process liberals” (those who see themselves as centrist managers in government rather than active policy planners).

But what is most important is the administration’s overall orientation, which should be to innovate, to break with the past, to as Franklin Roosevelt said over and over again, to seek the path of “action and action now.” Lincoln’s Civil War cabinet with its “team of rivals” is a flawed model for President Obama as he faces the present crisis. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” model with its “brain trust,” new agencies, new and different people in important leading positions and commitment to experimentation and action is an excellent one.

--Norman Markowitz is a contributing editor of Political Affairs.

1 comment:

Warren Greer said...

An excellent and well-thought-out
estimate of the depression we are in. We must take care to avoid any notion of the people that a capitalist depression can be fought
without cost. The question before
the nation is, "Who will pay the cost -- those who caused it and are
busy lining their pockets with bail
out bucks, or the workers who spent
the early floundering years of the New Deal suffering?"