What A New Deal-Era Movie Could Teach President Obama

Could a film from 1935 provide President Obama with a pointer or two about mobilizing support for an ambitious agenda? And could the can-do spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt's epoch inspire the Obama administration to remember that the New Deal was qualitatively different--and a lot more popular--than what today's Democratic hierarchs seem to be advocating?

No doubt President Obama believes that his economic recovery plans are modeled after those of the 32nd President seven decades ago--and yet the differences are greater than the similarities. Today, the 44th president is on the defensive as he struggles to promote a costly agenda that even many Congressional Democrats are rejecting.

One explanation for Obama's difficulty is the lack of specificity--specifics as to what Americans might get in return for all the money they are being asked to spend and borrow. Spending lots of money makes sense if you get lots in return.

Specificity was one of the great strengths of the New Deal: The programs were tangible. The Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, Rural Electrification Administration, and Tennessee Valley Authority were all controversial--critics labeled them costly boondoggles--but they were specific. And tangible. People could see them, and see their benefits. And so when President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated Boulder Dam (later renamed Hoover Dam) on the Arizona-Nevada border, that was real proof that the government was doing things with obvious economic and social value.

By contrast, Obama seems unable to climb down from abstractions such as "stimulus," "liquidity injections," and "toxic assets." Yes, today's Democrats have learned to refer to all spending as "investment," but the most positive specifics in the Obama agenda ("smart grid," "green energy") have been lost in the swirling soup of rising spending. Folks can see the the expenditures (including the government-funded bonuses granted to AIG executives), but they don't really see the benefits.

Back in the 1930s, the popular culture bubbled with tales of builders and developers, many of them straddling the line between the public and private sectors. A 1935 movie, The Tunnel, starring the now-forgotten actors Richard Dix and Madge Evans, featuring cameos by Walter Huston and George Arliss, is an illustrative case in point.

In the film, set in the not-too-distant future, Dix plays the visionary inventor-engineer Richard "Mack" McAllan, who has developed "Allanite Steel" and a "radium drill" that will enable him to dig a tunnel beneath the Atlantic Ocean, connecting America to Europe. McAllan's purpose in pursuing this undersea project, as the film makes clear, is one part technological bravura, one part promotion of trans-Atlantic harmony--and, as a distant third part, turning a profit for the tunnel-financiers.

In this YouTube excerpt from the film, Mrs. McAllan encourages her husband--who has already built tunnels under the English Channel and in the Caribbean--to press ahead with the mammoth project, despite skeptics and cynics.

Mrs. McAllan: The world needs the tunnel.

Mr. McAllan: You make it sound like something heroic.

Mrs. McAllan: Well, isn't it? You've always been like that--doing great things, making the world better and safer, and believing all the time that you're doing them just to please yourself.

But there's an irony here: McAllan is indeed trying to make the world better and safer. And that's the essence of the film--that there is something inherently heroic about building things, and such construction can serve great and noble purposes. And if the makers of the popular culture--and the leaders of the political culture--have forgotten that fact of human nature, well, they are the worse for it.

In The Tunnel, after many dramatic twists and turns--multiple deaths during the course of construction, family strife, perfidy from evil capitalists--the grand project is successful, and a better world beckons. Thus McAllan emerges as a model technocrat for his time: He is entrepreneurial, but not greedy; he is energetic, far-seeing, determined to seek change, but still modest and down-to-earth.

Now, fast-forwarding to today: Where is that can-do spirit? Where are the men and women who can inspire and create? Who can overcome the naysayers, the NIMBYs, the nihilists, and the neo-Hobbits? Who can complete projects of enduring value for America? If Obama can't find such forward-looking, forward-moving creators to serve in his administration, his would-be Second New Deal risks dissolving into debt, deficits, frustration, and inflation.