The U.S. economy is cratering. On Thursday, we learned a record 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment last week. That’s on top of the over 3 million that sought unemployment benefits the week before. For context, this means more Americans filed for unemployment in those two weeks than during the first six months of the Great Recession.
Not surprisingly, on Friday, the unemployment rate jumped to 4.4 percent, from 3.5 percent, but in reality, we won’t have a true sense of the scope of unemployment until the next jobs report in May. However, a recent estimate from economists at the St. Louis Federal Reserve alarmingly predicts that unemployment will far eclipse the 10 percent level of the Great Recession and potentially even surpass the Great Depression’s top unemployment rate of 24.9 percent.
Things are getting very ugly, very fast for our nation. We are facing the one-two punch of a deadly virus made worse by a growing economic catastrophe. But history may offer us both some hope and a path forward on the economic front. Both the Great Depression and the Great Recession started under Republican presidents, President Herbert Hoover in 1929 and President George W. Bush in 2008. In both cases, it took Democratic presidents — Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Barack Obama — to right the ship. And it will likely take a Democratic president, or at least Democratic policies, to save America again.
Democrats, generally speaking, subscribe to the philosophy that the federal government should be expanded and used as a tool to help Americans in times of need. In contrast, one of the policy pillars of the modern-day GOP is shrinking the role of the federal government. Now is not the time for Democrats to be cautious — Democratic leaders need to lean hard on their ideological roots. They need to channel the spirit of FDR and champion sweeping, large-scale federal programs that can help Americans by creating jobs and investing in our nation.
Yet, stunningly, it’s President Donald Trump who is now taking the lead by proposing an FDR-style massive infrastructure program. This week Trump tweeted in support of his infrastructure proposal: “It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country!”
While we don’t have any details, such a proposal theoretically echoes FDR’s Depression-era efforts as part of the New Deal, such as his Works Progress Administration, which was designed to create jobs by federally funding public infrastructure programs.
Now, it’s unclear if Trump will do more than tweet about this program, especially given that it would be expensive and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Wednesday signaled he was hesitant to rush into more mass government spending. “We do have to be mindful of how to pay for it,” McConnell said about further aid bills.
Congressional Democrats should not allow Trump to co-op one of their biggest selling points. I’m not suggesting Democrats don’t work with Trump on such a proposal. Rather, it should be Democrats leading the charge for these types of programs and putting pressure on Republicans like McConnell.
True, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is already pushing for a fourth stimulus bill that will include funding for infrastructure as well as health centers and housing. What I’m suggesting, though, is not just a stimulus plan to pump money into the economy. People are struggling now, and we need to help them. But FDR’s programs not only helped people struggling at that time but also provided future generations of Americans with a safety net and better standard of living.
The best-known example is Social Security, which FDR signed into law in 1935. That 1935 law also created one of America’s most import lifelines: unemployment insurance funded by employers. To take another example, FDR’s Tennessee Valley Authority created immediate jobs and brought electricity to the rural portions of seven states in the South — a program that still operates today as the nation’s largest public power provider.
Today’s Democratic leaders could propose guaranteed health care for those who now find themselves unemployed. With millions suddenly out of work and no jobs to be found, many will be left without health insurance as their employer-provided expire. No doubt countless will be unable to afford private health insurance for themselves or their families, making this the ideal time for Democrats to advocate for expanding programs like Medicare to include the newly unemployed and their families. This could lay the groundwork for guaranteed health care for all Americans in the future.
Working off the Tennessee Valley Authority model, Democrats could propose a program bringing internet access to rural areas of America — which are now 12 percentage points less likely than Americans overall to have home broadband. Such a program would immediately create jobs while also offering a lasting benefit to both rural Americans and America overall.
Many other ambitious programs would do the same, such as providing universal Pre-K or jumpstarting jobs tied to renewable energy.
Pelosi has not always shown herself to be willing to go for broke in a crisis, preferring to bide her time. That has sometimes paid off politically, but it is not the strategy we need now. Democrats cannot allow Republicans to slow-walk desperately needed aid, and neither should they allow Trump to paint himself as the savior of everyday Americans (which in reality he is not). Instead, Democrats must put sustained pressure on their GOP colleagues to provide both short-term and longer-term relief. This will be a defining moment for the party — hopefully they won’t blow it. It’s once again time for the Democratic Party to save America.