When he signed the $ 2 trillion Covid-19 rescue package last week, President Donald Trump was visibly pleased. He touted it as the “single biggest economic relief package” in U.S. history, which will deliver “urgently needed relief” to Americans. Perhaps. Sweeping in its ambition, the package endeavors to infuse hundreds of thousands of small businesses, tens of millions of individuals and families, hospitals and health care systems, as well as the nation’s largest employers, with cash and liquidity.
But passing the bill was easy. Making it work is the hard part. Massive stimulus packages don’t just need votes. They require expertise, professionalism and skill to execute, and it’s not at all clear that the Trump administration has enough of that to make this program work.
We’re already beginning to see signs of problems: The $ 350 billion lending program to help small businesses won’t be ready for its launch this week, with banks claiming the White House set an unrealistic deadline and unworkable terms, and failed to provide basic rules and guidelines.
Let’s look at one of the last times the government had to grapple with rolling out a massive stimulus. Eighty-five years ago next week—on April 8, 1935—President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, a monster piece of legislation he called “the Big Bill” meant to combat the suffering brought on by the Great Depression. Weighing in at almost $ 5 billion—more than the previous year’s entire federal budget, and roughly 7 percent of gross domestic product—the Big Bill put millions of Americans to work building bridges, roads, libraries and parks. It dovetailed with other programs that brought electricity and light to vast parts of the countryside, propped up farm prices and revitalized American manufacturing and industry.
The passage of the bill felt momentous, but FDR’s much greater achievement was enacting it—spending the money, putting shovels in the ground, getting money in people’s pockets. Like most New Deal initiatives, the Big Bill required a White House both deft and nimble at administration, staffed by legions of capable professionals who were singularly focused on execution. Those qualities embodied the New Dealers—young men and women who, by the many thousands, converged on Washington, D.C., in the 1930s to make FDR’s vision a reality.
Unlike FDR, who vastly expanded state capacity, Trump has waged war on the federal government, leaving vast numbers of key roles unfilled, bullying and hollowing out the ranks of the nonpartisan civil service and populating his White House and Cabinet with men and women of little qualification. FDR hired capable pros—people with decades of experience in law, social policy, economics and other fields. Trump’s closest advisers are his son-in-law, who inherited a real estate company, and his daughter, who before entering public service operated a fashion line. One of the top deputies at the Office of Presidential Personnel—a key office that selects, vets and ushers through the clearance and confirmation processes top administration officials—is a 23-year-old college senior.
Trump’s task is in some ways harder than the one FDR faced in 1935: The economic downswing is more immediate, brought on by a disease pandemic. Yet there is little in the administration’s track record to suggest it is staffed to meet the challenge.
The New Deal was a famously prodigious, if not always coherent, undertaking. As FDR put it, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” Its key relief programs were a study in this loose methodology. The Works Progress Administration, ushered into life by the Big Bill, enlisted 3.5 million Americans on its employment rolls within a year of its inception—11 million workers before the decade was out—and spent $ 11 billion constructing, among other landmarks, New York’s LaGuardia Airport, Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, as well as 100,000 lesser bridges, half a million miles of highway and roads, innumerable schools and post offices and 8,000 parks. It was of a piece with other agencies like the Tennessee Valley Authority, which along with sister agencies built over 20 dams—the Bonneville, Grand Coulee and Boulder, among them—that, in turn, delivered electricity to millions of farm families throughout the South and West. The WPA was a close cousin to other “alphabet soup” agencies like the National Youth Administration and the Civil Conservation Corps, which put millions of young men to work improving campsites and national forests.
Over the course of eight years, before World War II interrupted it and solved for a time the problem of systemic unemployment, the New Deal borrowed and spent unprecedented sums of money to prime the economy’s demand pump.
The men and women leading these initiatives were pros, though they didn’t always agree with one another. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, a progressive Republican attorney from Illinois, was a veteran Chicago campaign manager with close ties to prominent social reformers and experience running relief projects in Europe. Early in the administration, his careful—some thought too careful—stewardship of the Public Works Administration, a predecessor to the WPA, earned him the opprobrium of critics who thought he was too cautious in distributing relief dollars. “He still has to learn that the Administrator of a $ 3 billion fund hasn’t time to check every typewriter acquisition,” complained one of his aides.
Harry Hopkins—FDR’s Man Friday, who would lead the WPA, serve as Commerce secretary and become the president’s chief White House counselor during World War II—took a different tack altogether. In his first hour as head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (another early rehearsal for the WPA) he spent $ 5 million. Inclined to get money in people’s hands as quickly as possible, Hopkins, a veteran reform administrator who had previously served as president of the American Association of Social Workers and director of the New York Tuberculosis Association, was indifferent to long-term planning or budgeting. “People don’t eat in the long run,” he tartly observed. “They eat every day.” Eager to infuse local economies with cash and credit as quickly as possible, he partnered closely with mayors, governors and urban political machines to spin up projects and tolerated a certain level of waste and fraud as necessary costs of doing business. In his early New Deal days, as head of the Civil Works Administration, Hopkins proved a deft operator. Lacking the administrative capacity to move money instantly (his new organization had no payroll or procurement systems on Day One), he worked through the Veterans Administration, a preexisting agency with well-established disbursement channels already in place. Within two weeks of the agency’s creation, he had 800,000 people on the CWA’s payroll; within months, over 4 million people were receiving regular paychecks.
Described by one colleague as possessing “a mind like a razor, a tongue like a skinning knife, a temper like a Tartar and a sufficient vocabulary of parlor profanity … to make a mule-skinner jealous,” Hopkins did not, predictably enough, care for Ickes’ more measured approach. “He bores me,” he said of the Interior secretary. But their rivalry yielded results. Not willing to be outshone, Ickes kicked his relief agencies into high gear and became “a builder to rival Cheops” (the pharaoh who build the Great Pyramid of Giza), as one historian put it. The men his department employed built such wonders as the Lincoln Tunnel, the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys, the Bay Bridge in Northern California as well as thousands of hospitals and courthouses.
Hopkins and Ickes were typical of many New Deal agency heads and White House staffers. Drawn from the professional ranks, they were steeped in the Social Gospel reform tradition, claimed prior experience managing relief or social service agencies and banked extensive administrative experience. Aubrey Williams, whom FDR tapped to lead the National Youth Administration, held a Ph.D. from the University of Bordeaux and worked as a social worker prior to his New Deal tenure. Frances Perkins, FDR’s labor secretary and the first woman to hold a Cabinet position, was a veteran social and policy reformer who had worked at Jane Addams’ Hull House. Adviser Adolf Berle and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. were veterans of Lillian Ward’s Henry Street settlement house. Coming at the problem of poverty through a real-world lens, with the benefit of education and training, they were uniquely prepared to oversee New Deal agencies tasked with alleviating the plight of the unemployed.
The same spirit of professionalism pervaded other New Deal departments and agencies. For the critical position of Agriculture secretary, Roosevelt tapped Henry Wallace, a progressive Republican from Iowa whose background as a farmer, farm journal editor and rural entrepreneur—Wallace pioneered a method of producing hybrid seeds that made him a wealthy man prior to his Cabinet appointment—made him an ideal candidate to tackle the collapse of commodity prices that had left millions of rural Americans in abject poverty even before the Great Depression set in. Key to this undertaking was a complicated and controversial initiative to prop up prices by taking crops and livestock out of production, not only by paying farmers to leave cultivated land fallow but also, in its earliest months, by paying them to destroy harvests and animals. Like Hopkins, Wallace leveraged the existing bureaucracy to spin up his program quickly: He relied on rural extension agents who traditionally helped farmers increase production but who now encouraged them to decrease it. Drawing on the talents of his exceptional staff—including future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, future Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, and Alger Hiss, whose brilliant public career would meet an ignominious end in the late 1940s—the Agriculture Department succeeded to a large degree in reversing the problem of overproduction and lifting gross farm income by 50 percent in Roosevelt’s first term.
The expansion of the New Deal state made the federal government an exciting place to work for young men and women of talent and education. Under the influence of legal scholar and professor Felix Frankfurter, whom FDR would later appoint to the Supreme Court, Harvard Law School became a virtual recruiting office for the administration, delivering such prodigies as Ben Cohen and Thomas Corcoran, who built and led a steady string of key agencies. Time magazine dubbed them the Gold Dust Twins and placed them on the cover, so widely felt was their influence.
Lawyers, economists, statisticians, social workers, labor and industrial experts—the New Dealers populated the middle and upper ranks of departments and agencies invested with vast spending and regulatory authority. Many of their names are obscure today, but in their time, New Dealers like Isador Lublin (Bureau of Labor Statistics), Lauchlin Currie (Federal Reserve), Mordechai Ezekiel (Agriculture), Leon Henderson (WPA) and Jerome Frank (Securities and Exchange Commission) oversaw massive relief efforts, restructured large sectors of the American economy and created a permanent welfare state. That they did so in eight years, before the exigencies of World War II aborted many of their efforts, is all the more remarkable.
In short, it was the most impressive collection of experts, bureaucrats and operators that had ever staffed a single presidential administration, and it established the basis for a wartime and post-war tradition that saw the best and brightest minds of both political parties, from across the ideological spectrum, gravitate to government for at least a portion of their careers.
Assuming office in 1933, Roosevelt faced an unprecedented crisis. The Depression, which had been building for several years, had spiraled out of control. Banks were failing each week by the hundreds. Unemployment peaked at 25 percent. Farm prices collapsed. Industrial production slowed to a crawl. Barely a year into his term, environmental disaster in the form of dust storms befell the Plain States. Roosevelt’s administration worked with skill and dispatch, but its relief and reform programs took root over a decade.
Trump doesn’t enjoy the benefit of time. Even in 1933, the American economy didn’t collapse as suddenly or dramatically as it has over the past month. And, of course, FDR—who led the nation through the Great Depression and World War II—never had to deal with the likes of Covid-19.
It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s actually not easy to spend $ 2 trillion quickly—if, that is, one intends to put the money in the bank accounts of hundreds of millions of people, small businesses, hospitals and service agencies with haste, efficiency and minimal grift. The challenges FDR’s advisers faced—how to get millions of people on a public payroll in the space of weeks; how to track expenditures and contracts or how to restructure loans; how to ensure honesty and accountability—are the same as today. Add to that the need to pivot quickly and prop up a struggling public health infrastructure to deal with the virus.
It all requires a deft hand at administration, politics and logistics. And there’s little to suggest the Trump administration is ready to meet the challenge.
After waging a nearly four-year war on the so-called “Deep State,” Trump’s administration is woefully unprepared to meet either the public health or economic crises. Over 75 top posts at the Department of Homeland Security remain unfilled. The New York Times reports that at “the Department of Veterans Affairs, workers are scrambling to order medical supplies on Amazon after its leaders, lacking experience in disaster responses, failed to prepare for the onslaught of patients at its medical centers.” Eighty percent of senior sub-cabinet positions—accounting for over 500 top personnel—have seen turnover since the president took office. Senior offices at the Treasury Department are vacant. Many who’ve been appointed to key positions—like Kushner, who, having attempted to bring peace to the Middle East, has now assumed coordination of the administration’s pandemic response—are patently unqualified for the jobs they now hold.
With few seasoned hands on deck to make sense of Congress’ $ 2 trillion legislative behemoth, the president may struggle to clear the same administrative hurdles that FDR’s team so deftly negotiated some eight decades ago. Then, unlike now, the occupant of the Oval Office valued the advice and contribution of subject matter experts, actively gathered around him men and women of talent and capability and understood the need to meet complexity with know-how. The absence of these values could prove daunting in the days ahead.