Why can't Obama be more like Roosevelt?

The call is sounding for a new jobs-creating WPA. But even FDR would have had trouble getting things done today

Published November 9, 2009 10:26PM (EST)

In the wake of 10.2 percent unemployment, the usual suspects are calling for more stimulus and even dreaming of a new Works Progress Administration. The subtext: Why can't Obama be more like Roosevelt? People are out of work, so instead of subsidizing car purchases or home ownership, why not just hire them to build the kinds of parks and schools and bridges that made Roosevelt's WPA such a lasting influence on the American landscape?

The politics of then and now are quite different, of course. Roosevelt faced nothing remotely like the intransigence currently being demonstrated by the opposition party. But could there be other constraints? While defending Obama from critics who are directly blaming the president for the current unemployment numbers, Megan McArdle makes an interesting point:

Stimulus is at best an incredibly blunt instrument. And it is made blunter by all of the procedural checks we've accumulated over decades of government growth, not to mention very powerful public sector unions. FDR could tell his government to go out and hire people to paint hallways or build dams. The current president needs Environmental Impact Statements, public review periods, and the okay of AFSCME.

McArdle is onto something. Consider the city of Berkeley, which is dotted with amazing relics of the New Deal, for instance, the lovely Codornices Rose Garden, an amphitheater of roses carved into the Berkeley hills by WPA workers. If a similar project was conceived today, it is impossible to imagine its progress occurring at anything even approaching a snail's pace. In addition to a no doubt hotly-contested Environmental Impact Statement, there would be massive NIMBY-ism from the local hill-dwellers, protests against the displacement of indigenous plants and animals from a motley crew of activists, and endless City Council meetings debating the merits of every aspect of the new project until the wee hours. Just getting new bike lanes in San Francisco has required a titanic -- and highly litigated -- struggle over the last half-decade. To pull off something on the scale of the WPA, which hired millions of workers to build thousands of schools and bridges and parks all over the country, would require battling "procedural checks" of gargantuan proportions.

Which is not to say that we should do away with impact statements or public review or protest. Making it difficult to remake the landscape has its drawbacks, but also serves to protect our landscape from being remade willy-nilly by the best connected developer or empire-building corporation. In China, the government can get things done fast, but in China, the farmer on the outskirts of Shanghai doesn't have much power to do anything but accede to the authorities when Disney and the Party decide to build a new theme park. Over the centuries in the U.S. a baffling encrustration of contraints has limited the power of the government and the private sector to accomplish their will... but not necessarily for ill.

Obama is not Roosevelt in part because, well, he's not Roosevelt, but also because the times (in addition to the Senate) will not let him be Roosevelt.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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