From President Franklin D. Roosevelt
On January 20, 2021, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. took the oath as the 46th President of the United States of America. As he put it in his inaugural speech:
“Few people in our nation’s history have been more challenged or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we’re in now. Once-in-a-century virus that silently stalks the country. It’s taken as many lives in one year as America lost in all of World War II. Millions of jobs have been lost. Hundreds of thousands of businesses closed. A cry for racial justice, some four hundred years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.
“The cry for survival comes from planet itself, a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear. And now a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.”
In looking forward to the challenges he faces, I recommend our 46th President first look back to the experience of our 32nd President, who also assumed office in the midst of challenging and difficult times, which threatened to overwhelm the nation.
In 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote a book looking back on his first year, aptly entitled On Our Way (John Day Co. NY 1934). “It was a year of redemption and consummation — the redemption of pledges to the people of American and the consummation of the hopes of the many who looked forward to a better ordered common life.”
The severity of the multiple crises which faced FDR, and which Biden now faces, calls for more than band aid solutions. In both cases, the crises facing the new presidents involved systemic problems. Systemic problems, by definition, require changes to the system itself. As FDR put it in the Forward to his book:
“The almost complete collapse of the American economic system that marked the beginning of my administration called for the tearing down of many unsound structures, the adoption of new methods and a rebuilding from the bottom up.”
While the problems facing these Presidents may differ, FDR offered advice which is applicable to the problems of today:
“Three steps, all interrelated, were necessary: first, by drastic measures to eliminate special privilege in the control of economic and social structure by a numerically very small but very powerful group of individuals so set in authority that they dominated business and banking and government itself: second, to war on crime and graft and to build up moral values; and third, to seek a return of the swing of the pendulum, which for three generations had been sweeping toward a constantly increasing concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands — a swing back in the direction of a wider distribution of the wealth and property of the nation.”
While they both faced seemingly overwhelming crisis upon taking office, the circumstances under which they began their Presidencies are very different. FDR rode a popular wave in 1932 which resulted in strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. In his book he was able to report that “The first act of the Administration was the swearing in of the new Cabinet . . . immediately after the close of the Inaugural Parade.”
Biden will obviously not be able to claim the same. He almost did not make it through an attempted coup before he took his oath, faces an evenly-divided Senate, and a hostile Supreme Court. Instead of swearing in a new cabinet, he will spend his first days in office trying to undo the last-minute executive orders of his predecessor. Most of all, Biden must balance prosecution of the insurrectionists against conciliation with an entrenched opposition.
Yet, here again, FDR may offer some advice on both bringing the country together and solving its problems. In his first year, he decided “to commence a project which had no parallel in our history” — the Tennessee Valley Authority, or “TVA.”
The TVA was championed by Republican Senator George Norris, from Nebraska. It was formally created by the Tennessee Valley Authority Act (ch. 32, Pub.L. 73–17, 48 Stat. 58, enacted May 18, 1933, now codified at 16 U.S.C. § 831, et seq.). It was conceived as a massive federal project to, not only electrify the rural regions of the Tennessee Valley watershed, but as a regional economic development agency, mobilizing experts and resources to advance the local communities.
Along with the scientists and engineers to design the projects, the government sent experts to advise in better farming methods and organizers to convince skeptical local leaders of the benefits of the projects. Well-paying jobs were created for not only building, but running the projects. (Of course, these jobs were mostly for whites at the time.) The TVA became so popular, that politicians left and right jumped on the bandwagon to claim credit. Barry Goldwater’s plan to sell the TVA, replayed in TV Ads by the LBJ campaign, played a large part in his defeat in 1964. The TVA still flourishes today, providing jobs and development throughout the region.
Today, President Biden can unite the country, spur the economy, and address climate change by establishing a large scale project on the TVA model. By that, I mean large-scale, publicly (NOT privately) operated project(s) designed to improve the communities in which it operates on a long-term basis. To this TVA model from FDR, three modern criteria must be added:
· The project must be environmentally sustainable, and carbon-negative. That means it will reduce the carbon in the atmosphere and thus work to slow climate change.
· Unlike the original TVA at its inception, the jobs and benefits of the project must be shared with all, without racial or other discrimination.
· It must be targeted to those states and communities where the worst climate-damaging industries — coal and petroleum- currently operate, designed to more than replace the jobs lost by the elimination of these industries.
It just so happens that the states where coal and petroleum industries are concentrated are also red or purple states. The top five coal-producing states are Wyoming, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Kentucky. The top five petroleum-producing states are Texas, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado. Members of Congress from these states would be hard-put to oppose such a large injection of development and resources towards their constituents. No matter their party, they should be anxious to provide their constituents with jobs paying a living wage, with health benefits, sick and family leave.
While the perpetrators of violence must be aggressively prosecuted, President Biden must address the underlying economic ills, and not just blame others, as Trump did. A 21st Century TVA is a way to do this.
What projects would such a 21st Century TVA take on? One suggestion would be RECYCLING. Americans generate nearly five pounds of garbage per day, per person. Most of the plastic recycling was sent to China, until they banned its import in 2018. Since then, the US has shifted its export of recycling to different countries. See Renee Cho, Recycling in the U.S. Is Broken. How Do We Fix It? (Earth Institute 3/13/2020)
Should we not develop a domestic, clean and sustainable industry for recycling? That is what Sweden has done, through its government-run recycling industry. See Amy Yee, In Sweden, Trash Heats Homes, Powers Buses and Fuels Taxi Fleets (NY Times 9/21/2018).
Whatever projects are taken on, they must follow the example of the original TVA — designed and run for people, not for profit. On this note, I close with FDR’s advice in his first inaugural speech:
“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.”
FDR Inaugural Speech, March 4, 1933