Is a Group of New Deal Descendants Influencing the Biden Administration?Breaking News
tags: political history, New Deal, Joe Biden
One recent Wednesday evening, a small of group of concerned citizens gathered on a Zoom call to talk about how to get the attention of the president.
At 6 p.m., two rows of elderly faces appeared on screen, staring into the camera: June Hopkins, Henry Scott Wallace, Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall and James Roosevelt Jr. If their names sound vaguely familiar it’s because their relatives—Harry Hopkins, Henry Wallace, Frances Perkins and Franklin Delano Roosevelt—formed the nucleus of one of the most famous and influential Oval Office rosters in American history. Ninety years later, these descendants of the FDR administration have reconstituted his Cabinet. And they have played their roles with a conscientious sense of purpose. This is a meeting, not happy hour. No one drinks, and they begin on time.
“It looks like Harold is having connection issues,” said Stephen Seufert, a volunteer staffer for the group. When he finally turned up, Ickes was in the woods, on vacation someplace remote. The internet was giving him trouble, and he couldn’t get into the Zoom. Seufert tried to troubleshoot the problem from afar, but after a few minutes, they let him be. Ickes is 81 and, as the son of Roosevelt’s interior secretary, is the closest to the actual FDR Cabinet.
“He’s not the most frequent attendant,” said Wallace.
Seufert, one of several self-identified “non-descendants” assisting the group, chimed in helpfully: “If we had better infrastructure, maybe Harold would be here right now.”
In a city of interest groups, “the descendants,” as they refer to themselves in frequent press releases and op-eds, are among the more unusual. They are determined to polish the legacy of America’s 32nd president by pushing the 46th to embrace a legislative agenda as transformational as the New Deal. They want Joe Biden to embrace the idea of an “activist” government. They want him to eliminate the filibuster. They spend hours parsing his words for echoes of the stirring language that helped defeat the Great Depression. And they devote their Wednesday night Zoom meetings, where they have met nearly every week since last June, to plotting ways to keep the comparisons to FDR alive, as if repetition might somehow will Biden’s latent progressivism to life.
In the FDR Zoom, time echoes indistinctly between 1933 and 2021, fixed in a state of looking back in order to look forward. They appear in doubles, representing themselves and their ancestors. Behind him on Zoom, Roosevelt’s face is framed by a bust of his grandfather. Over his right shoulder, Wallace has one of his grandfather. They are, as Roosevelt Jr. put it by accident during their recent meeting, living “here in the 20th Century.” Every moment of connection between past and present is a small revelation. Biden’s broadband push equals FDR’s electricity push—“That is so New Deal!” The recent discussion of Biden’s proposed Civilian Climate Corps (an alliterative match of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps jobs program) was an unmistakable data point for the group that Biden, as June Hopkins said, is “looking back.”
The sudden impulse to compare the two men—or to take issue with the impulse to compare the two men—has become commonplace in Washington. You’ll find the two men’s names side-by-side in headlines — more than 175 already this year. You’ll read about the way both men faced the threat of authoritarianism. You’ll see “New Deal” allusions in the coverage of Biden’s proposed infrastructure package. You’ll forget there was ever a time when the president wasn’t on the cusp of “transformational.” The presidential candidate who ran for office on the promise that “nothing would fundamentally change,” the six-term senator who moved with rather than ahead of his party from one decade to the next — is now, maybe, the next FDR.
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