But what does it mean to speak to the nation about these challenges in an FDR-like fashion? What should that entail for the presumptive Democratic nominee in concrete and rhetorical terms?
Two new developments — the release of a comprehensive blueprint on our economic future from the Roosevelt Institute, and the increasing odds that Congress’ economic rescue package will fall far short — provide an occasion to look at those questions.
Congress appears at loggerheads over extending supplemental unemployment insurance: Democrats are demanding $600 in weekly payments, but Trump and Republicans are opposed. The small business relief program is set to expire.
At the same time, the recovery is slowing down. We just learned some 1.8 million jobs were added in July, but that’s far less than the 4.8 million in June, and the unemployment rate is still over 10 percent. We’re still around 13 million jobs in the hole compared with where we were in February, and over 30 million are on some form of unemployment assistance. We may be facing a massive eviction crisis.
This wrecks Trump’s claim that our rapid reopening had unleashed a “rocket ship” recovery. Instead, the premature reopening caused a huge resurgence in the novel coronavirus that’s prompting a big economic pullback.
All this makes supplemental unemployment and support for small businesses more imperative. Yet Trump is raving about unilateral actions that won’t do anything (a payroll tax cut) or that he can’t legally do (unemployment assistance via executive action). Meanwhile, it’s clear the rescue package will be woefully insufficient even if it does materialize.
How should Biden be addressing this deepening crisis, if he truly wants to do so in an FDR spirit?
The new Roosevelt Institute report is built on several core ideas. The first is premised on this 1932 quote from FDR:
We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.
To speak to the nation in an optimistic tone at a moment of profound uncertainty and fear, as FDR did, means reaffirming the idea that economic and distributive outcomes are the result of policy choices. That was meant to rebut the Hooverism of the day.
But in the current context, it gives rise to the report’s other core idea — that our crises have exposed deeper systemic problems and injustices in our political economy, ones that predated the virus and are baked into our market rules, ones that we created and that we can change.
Deep systemic problems
For instance, the crises have exposed horrifying flaws in our unemployment system. Because it’s largely administered by states, that has created wildly varying levels of stinginess and eligibility criteria. That required major emergency action by the federal government in the form of the supplemental. But that’s now expired, ripping the lid off the problem again.
Yet as the Roosevelt report notes, that federal emergency assistance actually worked, a point Paul Krugman also made. That’s a reminder that we can create a far more comprehensive, generous and truly national system if we want to, in order to avoid the need for massive scrambles in the future.
To that end, the report also calls for other large expansions to the welfare state, such as universal child care — addressing the special challenges women face in the workforce, which have been thrown into sharper relief by closed schools, but also predated the crisis.
The crisis has also revealed that minority workers are overrepresented in “essential” jobs, putting them at much greater risk, yet often without safety precautions or just compensation. The heavily concentrated meatpacking industry has been been characterized by horrifyingly substandard and lethal conditions.
But the report argues that all this exposes deeper flaws in market rules that dilute worker power — dramatized by essential workers who don’t have leverage to secure coronavirus-protected workplaces, even as they must brave them to survive — and proposes ways to strengthen them.
These include antitrust, beefed up labor rights and even a federal jobs guarantee, which empowers workers by providing an alternative to predatory labor markets. More investments in free college might empower the Black and brown people overrepresented in essential jobs.
What Biden is really up against
Still another dimension to all of this concerns government spending.
If Biden wins the presidency, we know Republicans will try to make the recovery as crushingly slow and miserable as possible. As Ryan Cooper notes, Republicans are showing us this right now, so Biden must seriously internalize this reality to prepare to do whatever it takes to overcome that opposition and ensure as fast a recovery as possible.
Biden has proven willing to acknowledge that the scale of the crisis will likely require massive deficit spending. But as economic historian Adam Tooze tells Eric Levitz, the intellectual and political pull toward a snapback to austerity is remarkably strong even in grueling recovery periods, and will have to be resisted through deliberate political action.
Biden is often said to be temperamentally optimistic but ideologically incrementalist. If he really wants to project an FDR-style presidency, which appears sincere, one answer might be to locate the optimistic spirit that resides in ideological boldness.
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