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Build Back Better is a 21st century New Deal

President Biden delivers remarks at NJ Transit Meadowlands Maintenance Complex in Newark, N.J. on Monday, October 25, 2021.
UPI Photo

In his marathon floor speech Thursday night, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) angrily accused Biden of behaving like President Franklin Roosevelt in proposing major social spending the Build Back Better Act, then under consideration. McCarthy cited Rep. Abigail Spanberger (Va.), a moderate Democrat, saying that “Nobody elected [Biden] to be FDR” prompting shouts of “I did!” and “Me too!” from the Democratic side.

The White House view? Senior adviser Cedric Richmond noted that Biden was elected at a time of unprecedented health and economic crisis, with a mandate “to do big things,” including infrastructure.

“If you want to describe it as FDR-like,” he said, “then it’s FDR-like.” 

Biden himself has artfully dodged: “I don’t intend to be anybody but Joe Biden. That’s who I am. And what I’m trying to do is do the things that I ran on to do.”

The four of us are grandchildren of FDR, his vice president and two cabinet members who were highly involved in crafting the New Deal. We think it couldn’t be clearer: Spanberger is wrong and Richmond is right.

Biden was elected to emulate FDR. Biden talked about him constantly during the campaign. Days before the election, he gave an entire speech devoted to FDR’s example — not in some random battleground location, but in Warm Springs, Ga., where FDR lived — for polio treatment — and ultimately died.

Our group of New Deal descendants first started corresponding with Biden (as two of us described in this publication) when he made clear in spring of 2020 that he was planning an “FDR-sized presidency.” He said that the crises that would confront the next president were big enough to “eclipse what FDR faced.” After taking office, Biden sat down with prominent historians to discuss lessons from the New Deal and proposed a Civilian Climate Corps modeled on FDR’s wildly successful Civilian Conservation Corps. He seems to love the FDR comparisons and has FDR’s portrait in the place of honor above the fireplace in the Oval Office.

Candidate Biden couldn’t have been clearer about his New Deal-scale ambitions, and he proceeded to win by seven million votes. Though a few cautious members of his party may now be getting nervous, the fact is, we are still in a New Deal moment. We still have a health crisis and accompanying economic crisis, with a climate crisis and a democracy crisis thrown in for good measure.

The American people didn’t just vote for a bland “return to normalcy” (the campaign slogan of Warren Harding in 1920, whose presidency is memorable only for its corruption). They voted for, and deserve, big bold action that will improve their daily lives.

And history shows, this boldness will be rewarded. FDR’s leadership to rebuild the U.S. economy, create jobs and improve Americans’ economic security earned him victory in his first midterm election, adding seats in both the House and Senate — an extremely rare occurrence.

The enactment of the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Monday was a big first step, investing in the nation’s physical infrastructure in areas like transportation, clean energy, clean water and, in a modern version of the New Deal’s transformative programs to bring electricity to neglected rural areas, bringing broadband internet to more than 30 million neglected rural Americans.

FDR’s New Deal likewise made huge investments in physical infrastructure but didn’t stop there. It saw equal value in human infrastructure and the protection of the country’s natural resources. Thus came millions of jobs, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, Social Security and programs to fight flooding and soil erosion and to plant billions of trees. 

Today’s version is Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. Its investments in child care and elder care, universal pre-K, and extension of the child tax credit will provide economic security for tens of millions of working families and enable millions to return to the job market. Its investments in American-grown clean energy and mitigating the disastrous impacts of climate change will strengthen our economy and our children’s future. 

Would this exacerbate inflation? Only if it’s paid for by simply printing more money — which is why it’s essential to fully pay for it. This is totally possible by making the super-wealthy and corporations pay their fair share in taxes and closing loopholes and strengthening enforcement against tax cheats. In fact, empowering people to return to work will only increase the productivity of American businesses, reduce supply chain disruptions and product scarcity and make everything more affordable. 

Americans want security and confidence in their everyday lives. They want stable jobs and a decent income. They want to know their children will be cared for while they work. They want to live in safe communities. They want affordable life-saving prescription drugs.

These are the boldest investments in the American people since FDR’s New Deal. Build Back Better has the potential to provide Americans from all walks of life with greater confidence and security to reach for their dreams. Our ancestors would be all for it.

Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall is the grandson of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Labor Secretary, and founder of the Frances Perkins Center. James Roosevelt, Jr., grandson of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, is an attorney and serves as co-chair of the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic National Committee. Henry Scott Wallace is the grandson of Henry A. Wallace, FDR’s vice president and secretary of Agriculture and Commerce. Wallace is an attorney and co-chair of the Wallace Global Fund. June Hopkins is the granddaughter of Harry Hopkins, FDR’s close advisor and an architect of the New Deal. Hopkins is a professor of History Emerita, Georgia Southern University, Armstrong Campus. 

Tags Abigail Spanberger Biden infrastructure budget reconciliation Build Back Better Act Cedric Richmond FDR Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy New Deal New Deal agencies

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