Obama’s Stimulus Package, FDR’s New Deal, and the “Economic Royalists”

The world watches with bated breath as Obama arrives in Washington for his first serious meeting with Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill. The subject, of course, is how to rescue the economy, and even the most cynical are no doubt hoping that the new president can snatch prosperity from the jaws of depression.

The mood seems reminiscent of the days preceding the arrival of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, in the throes of the Great Depression. That mood is captured in some of the political cartoons of the time–like this one, published on the eve of FDR’s first inauguration in March 1933:



Just as they were in 2008, voters in 1932 were looking for bold and sweeping change. They got it with FDR. The same is unlikely to be true with Obama. Some details of the president-elect’s stimulus plan have already emerged. It includes modest tax cuts for businesses and middle-class workers, modest investments in jobs and infrastructure, and modest increases in aid to the states for such vital safety net programs as Medicaid and unemployment insurance benefits. It’s all an improvement over the Bush approach, of course. But as ThinkProgress points out today, according to leading progressive economists, it’s also too little as well as too late.

The cautious-by-nature Obama is already playing it down the center, Bill Clinton style, looking to please conservatives (who are unlikely to cooperate no matter how far he reaches out). This is in stark contrast to Roosevelt, who was willing to directly challenge what he called the “economic royalists”–the banking and business interests who were largely responsible for the Great Depression.

Historian and radical geezer Howard Zinn made this point in a speech at SUNY Binghamton following the election in November. He spoke of the conflict between Obama’s electoral mandate for change, and the powerful business interests that continue to oppose any real change, which might come in such forms as universal single-payer health care:

Obama so far has not challenged those economic interests. Roosevelt did challenge those economic interests, boldly, right frontally. He called them economic royalists. He wasn’t worried that people would say, “Oh, you’re appealing to class conflict,” you know, the kind of thing they pull out all the time, as if there isn’t, hasn’t always been class conflict, just something new, you know. Class conflict. “You’re creating class conflict. We’ve never had class conflict. We’ve always all been one happy family.” … And so, yeah, there are these interests standing in the way, and, you know, unfortunately, the Democratic Party is tied to many of those interests….I mean, look at the people on Obama’s economics team, and they’re Goldman Sachs people….They don’t represent change. They represent the old-style Democratic stay-put leadership.

In this spirit, here’s another political cartoon from March 1933.


[Cartoons are from the Basil O’Connor Collection at the FDR Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York; many of them have been placed online in a database created by students at Niskayuna High School in upstate New York.]

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