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Harold Meyerson: If Biden Wants to Be Like FDR, He Should Dump Summers and Rahm

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Now that Joe Biden is assured the Democratic nomination, lots of advisors will clamor to get his ear. As Harold Meyerson of The American Prospect warns, he should be careful about from whom he takes advice. If he cares about rebuilding America’s public schools, he should avoid anyone connected to Race to the Top, which was a hyper-version of George W. Bush’ failed No Child Left Behind. He should certainly avoid a Rahm Emanuel, not only because of his role in covering up the police murder of Laquan MacDonald, but because of his disastrous stewardship of Chicago’s public schools. It is rumored that Rahm wants to be Secretary of Education. Heaven forbid.

Biden: The 21st-Century FDR?

Joe Biden and his campaign are waging a determined campaign to demonstrate he knows that a page has been turned—that the restorative, incremental presidency he promised as a primary candidate is no longer capable of dealing with the crises the nation now encounters. I expect Biden will soon be quoting Lincoln’s annual message to Congress of 1862:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.

As The Washington Post reports, however, the president who Biden now hopes to model himself on isn’t so much Lincoln as it is Franklin Roosevelt—specifically, the FDR who tilted public policy in favor of workers and a more and better managed capitalism.

But as my colleagues Bob Kuttner and Dave Dayen have pointed out, some of the eminences now advising Biden are architects of that “quiet past [which is completely] inadequate to the stormy present”—in particular, Larry Summers and Rahm Emanuel. At the same time, Biden has set up policy committees that include left leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and is communicating somewhat regularly with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Which group will have the louder voice in a Biden administration will determine just how transformative—or ineffectually ancient-regime-esque—his presidency could be.

On this question, the history of Roosevelt’s presidency affords us some lessons. In FDR’s first year in office, one of his most important lieutenants was conservative Lewis Douglas, who made sure FDR’s budget was as close to balanced as possible, even as unemployment reached 25 percent of the workforce. Eventually, Douglas’s un-Keynesian counsels of austerity were overridden by liberal FDR lieutenant Harry Hopkins, who saw the need for and persuaded Roosevelt to establish a massive public-jobs program. Liberals like Hopkins, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, and White House aide Tommy Corcoran held sway until 1937, when Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau persuaded FDR to balance the budget again—triggering a huge and swift rise in the unemployment rate that the administration had until then been steadily reducing, thereby ending the New Deal’s string of systemic reforms.

If Biden is serious about initiating the huge economic reforms and the economic recovery the country so manifestly needs, not to mention the reforms required to move us toward more actual, more lived racial equality, he’ll need to rely on advisers who aren’t the 21st-century versions of Douglas and Morgenthau—who aren’t, in short, Summers and Emanuel. He shouldn’t take my word for it; he should ask what would Roosevelt and Lincoln do?


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