WASHINGTON -- Sixty years after his death, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the policies he pursued -- both at home and abroad -- during his record 12-year presidency appear to be enjoying something of a comeback.
Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and coastal areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, has spurred even President George W. Bush to promise government spending on a scale unmatched in decades, infuriating traditional Republican conservatives who view FDR's New Deal as the first step toward the despised welfare state.
And Democrats, many of whom applauded Bill Clinton's admission almost 10 years ago that "the era of big government is over", appear to have regained pride in their own "old-time religion", calling, among other things, for a "Gulf Coast Regional Redevelopment Authority" modeled after FDR's Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and a vast new jobs program for poor people based on New Deal public-works projects.
"The media haven't paid much attention so far because the New Deal proposals probably sound like historic relics," wrote noted economics reporter William Greider this week. "But the aptness of the ideas -- aggressive government intervention, integrated across many fronts -- will become clearer to people if Democrats re-educate the electorate."
Nor is the embryonic FDR revival limited only to economic and domestic policies.
For several months now, some foreign policy intellectuals have been urging their colleagues to take a new look at FDR's international diplomacy, notably his "Good Neighbor Policy" that ended 35 years of U.S. military interventions and occupations in Latin America and the Caribbean. The policy later served as the basis for his sponsorship of a whole new set of international institutions, including the United Nations, at the end of World War II.
The "Gunboat" and "Dollar" diplomacies that dominated U.S. relations with its southern neighbors from the Spanish-American War until the withdrawal of U.S. Marines from Haiti and Nicaragua in FDR's first year in office in 1933 succeeded mainly in spreading anti-U.S. sentiment in the region in a way that is not unlike the Islamic world's reaction to Bush's "war on terrorism" and especially the war in Iraq, according to Tom Barry of the New Mexico-based International Relations Center (IRC).
"The Good Neighbor policy of the Roosevelt presidency marked a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign relations, characterized by a public repudiation of three decades of imperialism, cultural and racial stereotyping, and military intervention," according to a recent article by Barry and other IRC associates who have proposed the adoption of a "Global Good Neighbor" policy.
And just as policymakers have begun to look back to the New Deal for inspiration in dealing with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, "The Good Neighbor Policy of the 1930s provides inspiration for another approach to international relations, and one deeply rooted in our own history," Barry said.
Roosevelt, who had served as Navy Secretary (where he gained foreign policy expertise) and governor of New York before his election to the White House, was the single most influential president of the 20th century, if not of all U.S. history.
Bitterly attacked by conservative Republicans of the day as a socialist and traitor to his class, FDR's charisma and progressive, if quite pragmatic, policy-making are credited with lifting the country out of the Great Depression, creating a durable social safety net, and leading the nation to victory in World War II. His presidency also laid the groundwork for a new, multilateral order based on liberal principles, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and collective security.
Those achievements have been so broadly accepted that despite the effective disintegration of the "New Deal" coalition of labor, ethnic and racial minorities and the "Solid South" that put him into office, continuous efforts by the extreme right to eliminate his legacy -- by, for example, privatizing social security or withdrawing from the U.N. -- have been repeatedly turned back.
Still, as the Republican Party has become ever more rightist since the late 1970s, and particularly since it took over the House of Representatives in 1994, the anti-Roosevelt right has made some progress, and none more than under Bush himself.
Unprecedented tax cuts, particularly for the wealthy, combined with much greater spending on "homeland security" and defense, have greatly depleted the Treasury at the poor's expense. Bush's appointments of industry insiders and Republican cronies to top agency posts have also made it much more difficult for government regulators to act in the public interest.
In foreign affairs, his administration's unilateralism, as well as his use and repeated threats to use military force, precisely recall the "Big Stick" diplomacy that caused so much resentment of U.S. power in the early part of the 20th century.
As popular discontent with Bush's policies -- both foreign and domestic -- has increased, especially during the past year, so have efforts by his growing legion of critics to find correctives in the past.
Until Katrina, however, the latter pointed to Bill Clinton's stewardship of the economy and success in reducing both the deficit and the poverty rate as the preferred model on domestic affairs, and to Bush's own father as the preferred model on foreign affairs.
But the unprecedented damage wrought by Katrina -- and the disproportionate and extraordinarily visible suffering of the poor, to whom very little media attention has been paid since the 1960s -- has brought a growing number of commentators back to an earlier time for which FDR is the obvious benchmark.
"...George Bush isn't FDR; indeed, in crucial respects he's the anti-FDR," wrote New York Times columnist Paul Krugman last week in an op-ed entitled "Not the New Deal".
Krugman compared Roosevelt's corruption prevention efforts in expanding federal programs favorably to the Bush administration's cronyism and small-government ideology, evident both in his early Katrina-relief efforts and the Iraq occupation.
And while Bush pledged to spend whatever it takes to rebuild New Orleans, Stephen Moore of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board complained in a column entitled "Welcome to the GOP's New New Deal" that "in the world of compassionate conservatism, the quaint notion of limited federal power has fallen to the wayside..."
"Democrats are doing what they haven't dared to do for many years, even decades: they are invoking their New Deal legacy and applying its liberal operating assumptions to the present crisis," wrote Greider. "...George Bush, meet 'Dr. New Deal."'
"The New Deal was premised on the notion that promoting cooperation and mutual respect among neighbors was the only way to solve community problems, and FDR believed that the same principles should be put to work in promoting U.S. interests in the larger hemispheric and global community," said Barry. "These ideas are as applicable today as they were 75 years ago."
© 2005 IPS - Inter Press Service