Thursday, September 15, 2011

Obama and FDR

Megan McCardle strikes a fatalistic note to explain why President Obama has disappointed progressives and liberals.
 Why Obama Was Never Going to Be the Next FDR
So it's not surprising that many Democrats assumed that financial crises and recessions are, well, good for Democrats and/or progressive policy advocates. I always thought this was nonsense: financial crises and recessions aren't good for Democrats; they're bad for whoever happens to be in charge, which merely means they're good for whoever isn't in charge by default. Hoover was indicted by history not because he'd done nothing--he had actually done quite a bit--but because the Depression had continued to worsen despite the things he did do.

From a strictly economic viewpoint, there is a great deal of merit in that argument. The crisis of 2008 was going to be a drag on the economy no matter what polices Obama put in place. McCardle's piece, however, fails completely as political analysis. She seems to think that Obama's political problems are almost entirely due to circumstances beyond his control. If he was not FDR II it was not his fault and besides FDR wasn't all that anyway.

As I read her post I thought of a passage from David Gelernter's brilliant book 1939: The Lost World of the Fair:
It is tempting when we study history to mistake accidents of personality for big, abstract principles. In the thirties, Americans tolerated an enormous expansion of the federal government. The depression and Franklin Roosevelt's character were the main reasons they did.
 Actually they did more than tolerate it. They enthusiastically endorsed it. Not only did they vote for FDR in a landslide in 1936, they gave the Democrats a resounding victory in his first mid-term election: Democrats held the Senate 69-25 and the House 322-103.

McCardle's “big abstract principle” does little to explain why Obama was repudiated in 2010 while FDR enjoyed monumental success in 1934. After all, as conservatives love to point out, the New Deal did not end the depression. Why did voters punish Obama for a bad economy but not Roosevelt?

 I've argued before that one key reason is that the
Obama administration displayed a bizarre combination of cynicism and naivete in their handling of the economic crisis. (“Never let a crisis go to waste.”) Instead of a laser-like focus on the economy, they pushed for a host of items on the progressive wish list (healthcare reform, “green” energy, cap-and-trade, civilian trials for the 9-11 terrorists, etc.). FDR, in contrast, used his first 100 days to pass legislation that directly attacked the depression and its causes. The public saw- rightly- that Roosevelt was concentrating on the issue that was their number one concern.

Gelernter gets at something important about FDR here:

[Robert] Moses and La Guardia were brilliant and even visionaries in a way that FDR was not. They may have been in the strictest sense more talented than he. But the element all three shared, Roosevelt above all, was ferocious will. In an age of authority, they were the authorities. They light up the high thirties like fireworks.

In the Hundred Days Congress did little more than rubber stamp the legislation that flew from the White House to Capitol Hill. That might not be the best way to govern, but it left no doubt that Roosevelt was the Man with a Plan (actually many plans). FDR also used the new medium of radio to connect with voters via his fireside chats. He was at the center of the public debate-- at once the towering authority figure in the White House and the reassuring voice in everyone's living room.

Obama often seemed to disappear off-stage during the major battles of 2009. He deferred to congress and let them craft most of the major legislation. He allowed Reid and Pelosi to move at a glacial pace on important issues like financial reform. The White House was unable or unwilling to find a modern equivalent of the fireside chat that would let Obama sustain public support for his programs.

Maybe, just maybe, the voters did not sour on Obama because he confronted problems that were beyond the powers of government. Perhaps, remembering Roosevelt, they fault him for not trying hard enough to solve the problems they care about most. If i am right, then progressives owe the president an apology. It is not that he did too little for them, it is that he tried to do too much.

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