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It’s no secret that the last decade of American history has witnessed a series of economic, environmental and political crises. The Bush Administration failed to fix these problems because it sought to address their effects, rather than their causes.
If President Barack Obama hopes to rectify this mistake, he should examine the policies of one of America’s greatest leaders, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Roosevelt is frequently credited as having invented the modern presidency, but his real accomplishment was actually the invention of a new America.
The war and economic crisis with which Roosevelt dealt were far more grave than those the Obama Administration faces, and yet his success is irrefutable. The reason is that Roosevelt had a rich conception of the American ideal. His New Deal policies were tailored to encourage a strong national identity built on the country’s founding principles. By revitalizing these principles, Roosevelt unified the American people in a way no other president had.
It was this sense of national unity that gave Roosevelt the manpower he needed to implement many of the important New Deal programs. Agencies like the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps and Tennessee Valley Authority have since become synonymous with Roosevelt’s success because of the way they remade the American landscape – literally and figuratively.
In his book, “Champion of Freedom,” Conrad Black accurately points out that Roosevelt re-imagined the relationship between people and their government. Roosevelt wasn’t afraid to be honest with the public, Black says. Radical times call for radical measures, but these times can also be an important opportunity for a country’s technological and cultural growth.
One need only consider how much America’s infrastructure improved under Roosevelt to understand the benefits of the New Deal. In addition to the numerous roads and bridges built by New Deal agencies, electrical service to rural areas more than tripled during Roosevelt’s time in office. Under the auspices of these programs, Roosevelt didn’t just heal America’s economic woes; he propelled the nation to its highest level of wealth and productivity ever. The legacy of these agencies testifies to the importance of technological innovation in the American economy.
Because President Obama faces a similar set of circumstances as those encountered by FDR, it’s important he strive to emulate the time-tested methods employed by the Roosevelt administration. Instead of bailing out America’s obsolete auto manufactures, Obama should encourage investment in industries with the capacity to bring our nation’s infrastructure into the the 21st century. A new New Deal would foster the same spirit of radical innovation and national cooperation as its 20th century model, and apply these principles to promote economic solvency.
America, once the global exemplar of technological innovation, has become embarrassingly complacent. The extent of America’s public transportation network pales in comparison with other developed nations. While countries like Japan and Germany have developed extensive rail systems whose trains travel in excess of 200 miles an hour, America’s Amtrak trains average barely more than they did a century ago. Similarly, while other countries invest in alternative energy projects, America continues to wrestle with the problem of oil dependence. America needs a new New Deal to address both her defunct infrastructure and unsustainable energy policies. By promoting national initiatives on both of these fronts, the Obama Administration might not only solve the unemployment problem, but also restore America’s position as a technological leader.
A project-based economy, like the one promoted by Roosevelt, would help establish a 21 century American identity. The nation’s economic stagnancy must be solved by addressing its technological stagnancy. Too often have presidents ignored the source of our economic problems. When Roosevelt entered office he found a physically divided America whose regions were commercially isolated from one another. Today, President Obama faces an America whose regions are socially and morally isolated from one another. America needs a new breed of civilian corps programs which, like the WPA and CCC, would engender a spirit of national cooperation and forward thinking. President Obama would do well to follow the example of President Roosevelt and learn to actively engage citizens in a time of crisis.
America’s economy, reputation and identity are at stake, but if we’ve learned one thing from Roosevelt’s presidency, it’s that our current vulnerability is an important chance to reassert ourselves as a nation. Time will tell if President Obama has the courage to realize this vision.
Caleb A. Slabbert is a Falmouth resident and a political science student at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.