Obama Needs a Frances Perkins by his Side
| May 8, 2009
President Barack Obama has emphasized that affordable health care for all is crucial for long-term economic prosperity. Frances Perkins made that point in 1933. A new biography brings President Franklin Roosevelt’s labor secretary out of the shadows just in time for us to understand why progressive women matter so much as America struggles with economic crisis, war and recovery from callous, corrupt government.
The fierce urgencies of now jump from the pages of The Woman Behind the New Deal, a just published biography of Frances Perkins. A real estate bubble breaks in a society with an enormous gap between the rich and the poor. The financial system tumbles into chaos. Economic confidence collapses. Jobs disappear. Organized labor suffers declines and internal fighting. The government dithers and defers until the people give it the boot. The burdens of war and national security weigh heavily.
If history of Perkins’ leadership guides us accurately, President Obama is correct. The arch of history bends toward hope—again.
But not unless the progressive movement puts bold leaders in power, equipped with vision and the tools to muck out the disastrous leavings of the greedy, the reckless and the feckless.
As we have been reminded continually since Obama took office, Franklin Roosevelt’s performance is a template to measure Obama’s actions for moving swiftly and sufficiently. Media coverage has been superficial, driven by the 24/7 news cycle that fills time with commentary from talking heads, most of whom are not historians. Kirstin Downey, the journalist who has become Perkins’admiring historian, digs deeply. Downey reveals the former social worker’s ability to get FDR to move swiftly and sufficiently.
Who might be Obama’s Perkins?
In itself, Roosevelt’s choice of his old friend and trusted political colleague as the nation’s first woman Cabinet member in 1933 was radical. Perhaps as radical as the American people choosing a black president in 2008.
Looking through the lens that Downey gives us, Perkins can be seen at the leading radical in the administration. But a thoroughly proper woman of her time, socially adept and always meticulous. Her relationship with the other most powerful FDR adviser is illustrative.
Her interests and skills brought Perkins into the same networks of influential New York social welfare activists that Eleanor Roosevelt encountered. As they rose with FDR, the two who would become the most powerful women in America took different and sometimes discordant routes to advance the progressive agenda.
Perkins had already been serving in N.Y. Governor Al Smith’s inner circle when FDR became governor. ER promoted Perkins’ effectiveness and political work as reasons FDR should appoint her to the state’s top labor post. He did, making Perkins head of the Industrial Commission. The Roosevelts and Perkins were close enough then that Perkins stayed in the governor’s mansion when she was in Albany. Over the years, FDR relied on each of them, but the women clearly had to do a balancing act. ER embraced a public persona, using and even becoming part of the media. Perkins was the internal manager, the crafter of legislation who shrank from the press.
While the nature of power means that those near him or her will jostle for influence with any president, it is hard to think of a clash of women titans now as complex as the one between Perkins and ER. More women stand in Obama’s inner circle. Maybe among them, Obama will be fortunate enough to have the long-term support of women with as much popular goodwill as ER and as much governing talent in tough times as Perkins.
Perkins embraced aggressive public jobs and works projects to get Americans working. She designed and engineered what we call the social safety net. Social Security, unemployment insurance, laws against child labor, workplace safety standards are Perkins’ work. She championed the 40-hour week, brokered union peace and shepherded the right to organize unions into law.
The only major reform on her agenda that she couldn’t accomplish was enacting health care for all.
Maybe Obama will find his Perkins who can.