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FDR and Barack Obama - Pepperdine Magazine

A Bit of History Repeating

Two scholars and a student explore why looking back helps move public policy forward.

In 1933, in the midst of the nation’s most debilitating economic crisis in history, then newly elected president Franklin Delano Roosevelt enacted a series of domestic economic programs that aimed to pull the American people out of the Great Depression. For the next three years Roosevelt’s “New Deal” focused on relief, recovery, and reform— the “3 Rs” that established the framework for today’s U.S. domestic policy and the ongoing debate between progressives and conservatives.


In their new book, The New Deal & Modern American Conservatism: A Defining Rivalry, authors Gordon Lloyd, professor of public policy at the School of Public Policy, and David Davenport, counselor to the director, Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and former president of Pepperdine University, revisit the debates between Roosevelt and fellow presidential nominee Herbert Hoover prior to the election and those disputes ignited by the New Deal in 1933.

In a conversation moderated by School of Public Policy student Alexander Klemp, the scholars delve deeper into the legacy of the New Deal and consider how the issues of the era remain current in public policy today.

Listen to the interview.

KLEMP: The book presents a perspective of the New Deal that has not been presented in the past—that issues surrounding the era still exist. Why in your opinion has this perspective been overlooked in history?

LLOYD: A very low-ground, practical answer is that history is written by the winners. Look at the way that Hoover has been demonized. He was a hero, one of the whiz kids of the 1920s, and did an incredible amount of philanthropic work. Because of this one event, he gets dismissed, and along with the dismissal of the person goes the dismissal of the argument. And so, that’s one answer: that people—intellectuals in particular— have accepted the New Deal as a march forward in civilization and progress. And to somehow return to the self-interest of Hoover in American individualism is to return America to a world which fortunately has gone.

KLEMP: The book draws many parallels between the campaign rhetoric of the Roosevelt-Hoover debates and that of the liberals and conservatives in 2012. Can you discuss these parallels?

DAVENPORT: The parallels are very strong, indeed. I think what Roosevelt was arguing for was very much what Obama had argued for in 2012. I think he was concerned that the question was no longer liberty in America, but how government would guide policy to take care of people. For Roosevelt, it meant a lot of government planning, it meant bigger government, it meant more government control; it meant more programs to help people via social security, very much like the Obama narrative of adding health care to the agenda of ways that government protects and takes care of people.

Both Roosevelt and Obama argued that it was the role of government to promote income equality. Both Obama and Roosevelt were advocating for income equality and higher taxation on the rich, so in many ways the 2012 debate was an extension, if you will, of the New Deal and of Roosevelt’s arguments in the ’30s.

KLEMP: There are some people in the media who say that, because the national media is so overbearing and so powerful, national candidates don’t have a chance and that conservatives have been successively losing elections in the national front. What is the power of the media during election time?

LLOYD: I think there are all kinds of fallback positions, that there’s some evil force at work that robbed conservatives of the election, whether it’s the liberals blaming Wall Street and the big bankers and big rollers of campaign, to the conservatives blaming the big media.

But, I think media does matter. FDR won, in part, because he took the debate away from Hoover, because he was much better at the use of the radio. Obama has a way, which I think is much more young-friendly than Romney’s. I think the media matters not because it’s left-wing-dominated, but because media matters in a commercial society. Certainly, I think Reagan had an ability with media that the other folks did not. I’m not going to pay as much attention to who owns the media. Yes, the media is powerful, but I don’t think that’s where the problem is.

KLEMP: The book suggests that modern-day politicians must take historical cues from the New Deal era to be a viable part of the current national conversation. Can you discuss how and why you believe this to be true?

DAVENPORT What we were trying to point out in the book is that, in fact, there has now been sort of an 80-year- long paradigm for American domestic, economic, and tax policy. That is the New Deal on one side and modern American conservatism on the other. This, I think, is not widely recognized: that we still basically live in the New Deal and that conservatives are still responding to modern-day expansions of the New Deal. That’s point one: just to recognize the phase that we’re in. And to go back and recover the arguments at the creation of this paradigm, when Roosevelt obviously was developing the New Deal and Hoover was giving the first shocked conservative response, that’s a really fundamental time in any sort of development: to go back and see how those arguments went.

We do think that even conservatives today have gotten caught up in big government in some ways. They, themselves, have succumbed to big government and have lost some of the liberty argument and some of the federalism and constitutional argument of those early days. Our point is that individual liberty should still resonate with the American people. It has become a bit of an abstraction, but conservatives need to make it real again. We think going back, historically, to come back to today’s policy makes a lot of sense and I think those are the key points we were trying to make with this book.