The Lessons of the New Deal: Did Obama Learn the Right Ones?


  • This essay was first given as the inaugural Feldt–Barbanell lecture in US Constitutional History at Arizona State University on 3 Feb. 2011. I am very grateful to Alex Barbanell and Gloria Feldt for their generous sponsorship and even more generous hospitality. The ASU History Department also made me most welcome.


In 2009, as in 1933, there was a major economic crisis and an ensuing recession. A discredited outgoing American president had been succeeded by a charismatic newcomer with a clear electoral mandate and large congressional majorities. This article asks why Obama, whose economic advisers explicitly drew lessons from the New Deal's economic policy, has been so unsuccessful politically. It notes that the Obama administration failed to get money into the hands of ordinary Americans quickly enough. Because the scale of the economic crisis of 2009 was less than that of 1933, congressmen of both parties have not come under the sort of pressure from desperate constituents to back their president that Roosevelt was able to exploit in the 1930s. As health care reform showed, Obama learnt the wrong lessons from Roosevelt about bringing in reform at a time of economic crisis. Above all, Obama has had to contend with the long history of popular distrust of the efficacy and intentions of the federal government that has characterized American politics since the 1970s.