Tim Stanley: Barack Obama's approach to the budget talks puts him well to the left of Franklin D Roosevelt

Roundup: Historians' Take

Dr Tim Stanley is a research fellow in American History at Royal Holloway College. He is working on a biography of Pat Buchanan. His personal website is www.timothystanley.co.uk and you can follow him on Twitter @timothy_stanley.

America has just edged a little closer to financial disaster. On Friday, Republican House Speaker John Boehner walked out of talks with the President over raising the debt-limit – a little over a week away from the deadline when the US Treasury says the country will no longer be able to pay its bills.

At this stage in the game it’s hard to work out who is being intransigent. Given the severity of the situation, it’s hard to care. Boehner said that Obama pushed an unacceptable tax increase, that, “Dealing with the White House is like dealing with a bowl of Jell-O”. The President insisted that he had offered a fair bargain: cutting $640 billion from entitlements and $1 trillion in discretionary spending, while raising $1.2 trillion in taxes. What is interesting is that Boehner has framed the debate in terms of conflicting ideologies: he said, “In the end, we couldn’t connect. Not because of different personalities, but because of different visions for our country.”...

The New York Times recently asked several historians to comment on the crisis, to assess how previous presidents approached their deficits. David Kennedy, a professor at Stanford University, made an interesting point: Franklin D Roosevelt, that Democratic idol, was a budget hawk (or, at least, he thought he was). To quote Kennedy, Roosevelt was “a stubborn fiscal conservative … In only two New Deal years, 1934 and 1936, did the federal deficit, as a percentage of gross national product, exceed the 4.6 percent of [his Republican predecessor] Herbert Hoover’s last year in office. The year 1936 saw the New Deal’s biggest absolute deficit, $4.4 billion, or 5.3 percent of G.N.P., largely because Congress – over Roosevelt’s veto – passed the notorious Bonus Bill, awarding some $2 billion to World War I veterans. The following year Roosevelt warmly embraced the conventional budgetary counsel of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and submitted an austerity budget, sharply contracting government spending and thereby triggering the so-called Roosevelt Recession.” Roosevelt also insisted that his Social Security plan not become a European-style unemployment benefit: “Instead, Social Security was to be funded ever after by matching payroll contributions from employers and employees.”...

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