NOVEMBER 11, 1936
Like most great victories, the Roosevelt triumph raises more questions than it answers. It is easy to guess what the people voted against, but not what they voted for. The majority was reluctant to turn the country over to the same crowd that had been represented by Coolidge and Hoover, that had helped to bring on the depression and had done so little to end it or to relieve the distress it caused. Many voters feared what this crowd, if in power, might do to labor or to those on relief, or to the farmers, who plead so long and so vainly for a fair deal before Mr. Roosevelt was elected. They resented the tone of the more extreme opposition to the President, which mouthed the personal scandal, the myths about Jewish and Communist plots. As the official Republican campaign came to resemble more and more the Liberty League attacks and the propaganda of all the little fascist and patrioteering agitators, they firmly decided they would have none of it.
But what did they vote for? A pleasant smile and a good radio voice? A recovery policy which, judging by the business statistics, had already done most of its work (or is proved not to have been as damaging as its opponents alleged) but which is largely irrelevant to present problems?: The amorphous Democratic Party? Or a series of reforms either already adopted or baned by the courts? It is almost impossible to point to one concrete proposal by the President for future action. The platform promised merely not to undo what had been done, and to continue the good work. There were a few general words about balancing the budget at the earliest possible moment, about reforming the civil service, about staying out of war. But in a larger sense, if Mr. Roosevelt has any mandate from the electorate, it is a mandate to remain President and do what he wishes.
What will the administration write on this blank check? A reelected President is said to have an immense opportunity to act as a leader unhampered by practical politics. During his first term he is making a record for reelection; during his second, since according to custom he cannot run a third time, he is making a record for posterity. This dictum seems to us superficial, especially in the president circumstances. No President, in spite of the great power of his position, is a dictator. And even dictators have to conform with social forces in the end. What any President of the United States can do depends in large measure upon his control of Congress, his support by public opinion, the interaction of pressure groups. He can express ideas, he can wield the prestige of his personality and his office, but the limits of his effective action are determined by forces outside himself.
In the case of Mr. Roosevelt, he was given far more scope for drastic policies in the spring of 1933 than he has today. Then the traditional centers of non-governmental power were completely demoralized, the social current was fluid, and by the very fact that he acted at all, he commanded an immense and enthusiastic following. Now, with recovery well advanced, with profits rising daily to new heights, with returned self-confidence among the customary economic rulers of the nation, and with a well developed propaganda against all significant change, Mr. Roosevelt’s sphere is more limited.
If the President had a freehand and were as serious about reconstructing the nation’s economic and social system as Mr. Roosevelt said he was at the beginning, he would recognize that a boom of the old-fashioned type is now developing. Business and finance have veered far away from social planning for either stability or abundance. In spite of peripheral reforms such as the imperfect beginning of social insurance, supervision of the issuance of securities and the stock market to enforce more honesty, and even the greater centralization of credit policy, no legal power and no techniques exist to prevent such a boom from running its usual course and being followed by another depression. It is fair to say that business executives and speculators have learned nothing from their recent experience. Yet the time to prevent a depression, if that can be done, is during revival. What national policies regarding wages, production, prices, investment and credit ought now to be followed? Mr. Roosevelt might ask a group of experts to recommend such policies; or, still better, he might resuscitate the movement, sidetracked by the ill considered N.R.A., to establish a genuine national planning by congressional enactment. And he might prepare for recommendations of such a body by supporting a constitutional amendment that would permit government to regulate economic life in essential particulars. By the time all this ground was cleared, it would be none too early to get ready for the next severe economic collapse.
Recognizing that all such efforts must remain paper programs unless backed by social and political forces, the President would also take pains to hold the path open for labor organization and consumer cooperation on the broadest possible scale. Since the Wagner act safeguarding unions is likely either to be thrown out by the Supreme Court or to be so narrowed in application as to cover only those employees directly engaged in interstate commerce, constitutional amendment would probably be necessary for this purpose also.
In agriculture, soil conservation, forestry and related fields, the administration has made a good beginning, but these efforts should not be relaxed; they should be redoubled. In power policy and conservation of mineral resources such as coal, oil and gas, the surface has hardly been scratched; energetic action is necessary here.
Many are convinced, and offer convincing reasons for their conclusion, that to effectuate aims like these, control of private business never will suffice, that the high road lies in the direction of enlarging public ownership. Mr. Roosevelt is not a socialist and has never pretended to be one; he was not reelected on a socialist program. Nevertheless he might try to extend public ownership in the cases of separate industries in which this means of adjusting problems seems reasonable on specific grounds and has been recommended by his own advisers — industries such as electric power and railroads.
A problem that might suddenly overshadow all these others is the relation of the United States to a new world war. There is no question that an overwhelming majority of the President's supporters, not to say of the whole population, wants to stay out of war if it comes. Is the administration prepared to effectuate this aim with practical measures? Does it have a feasible program of neutrality legislation that would keep us from being involved? And is it prepared to deal with the sacrifices that this would impose upon our own economic life? Is the President-ready to create an economy of peace that would offset the illusory attractions of the economy of war? This kind of preparation ought to be one of his first concerns.
In foreign policy also a clear line needs to be laid out. To what extent are we wise in cooperating with other nations in an effort to prevent war? Can the great democracies which have already approached one another with a currency understanding go further to lay the basis of a prosperity that will discourage fascist aggressors? How far can the rebuilding of world trade be pushed merely by the lowering of trade barriers? Will not some more positive action be necessary?
Here is a series of the most important opportunities that ever faced a President. The temptation will be, however, to ignore them or to play idly with them because prosperity is now really around the corner and dominating business forces are against all sorts of governmental activity except those which add to profits. Many expect Mr. Roosevelt now to swing to the right in order to conciliate as many as possible of the groups that have been fighting him so bitterly. He dearly likes to convert enemies into friends. His shrewd political instinct will naturally lead him in the direction of not alarming anyone of importance. Therefore the greatest political need for the coming four years is strong pressure from labor, progressives and all groups on the Left, accompanied by intellectual leadership on national problems. For without this pressure and this leadership Mr. Roosevelt may not want to do the necessary jobs, and even if he does want to do them, he will be able to make little headway.