Column: What FDR can teach Obama

More

[From Saturday's FT]

In the US presidential election of 1932 Franklin Roosevelt's campaign song was: "Happy Days Are Here Again". He won. Four years later, happy days had not returned: unemployment was down but still exceeded 15 per cent. That year, FDR was re-elected in a landslide that makes Barack Obama's victory look small. He carried every state but Vermont and Maine and more than 60 per cent of the popular vote. He led the Democrats to majorities of 334 to 88 in the House of Representatives and 76 to 17 in the Senate.

The economy promptly tanked. In the end it was revived not by the New Deal but by the war FDR had promised to stay out of. He won two more presidential elections.

The similarities between 1932 and 2008 make the temptation to draw parallels impossible to resist. One lesson that might give the president-elect comfort is that voters can overlook a lot of failure if they are sure that a president is on their side. Persuading them of this was FDR's surpassing talent. Mr Obama may have the same knack.

The history of the Great Depression is obscured by partisan mythology. One must steer a middle course between regarding FDR as a kind of saint who delivered the US from economic collapse and global conflict, and a malicious bungler who trashed the constitution and prolonged the Depression. Perhaps it is a moot point whether Mr Obama should even wish to be another FDR. If the thought should cross his mind, though, here are some things to consider.

After a prolonged and deliberately stalled transition - he and Herbert Hoover could not work together - FDR started with a bang. He dealt decisively with the financial aspect of the economic crisis. He closed the banks and used the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to recapitalise those sound enough to reopen. Most promptly did reopen and confidence in banks revived. He also took the dollar off the gold standard and let it depreciate. These were abrupt departures from Hoover's policies and they worked.

Then it was mostly a case of one step forward, two steps back. In his first 100 days FDR passed a blizzard of new laws - a standard other presidents seem expected to meet, though why is unclear. Banking and finance aside, the first months of the New Deal were a muddle.

Public works created new employment. But the Agricultural Adjustment Act aimed to support farm incomes through price and production controls; its fingerprints are on today's wasteful farm policies. Then came the National Recovery Administration to oversee a complex web of industrial regulation. This was based on the idea that too much production (not too little demand) was prolonging the slump. The NRA slowed the recovery. When the Supreme Court shut it down in 1935, growth picked up.

FDR persisted with taxes and other measures aimed at "economic royalists" - big business and the rich. Most likely, these also did more harm than good. Of greatest lasting significance, however, he laid the foundations of the welfare state in the Social Security Act of 1935. This did less than it might have to hasten recovery. New social security taxes began to be collected in 1936; benefits were not to be paid until a fund had been built up. (FDR was no Keynesian.) Nonetheless, the act created a programme that Americans today regard as inviolable.

FDR changed the country by changing what citizens demand of government. Economic hardship was no longer a private problem. It was the government's responsibility to provide some measure of economic security. Deploying a modern mastery of public relations, Roosevelt embraced this responsibility; and though the results were not always good, he did his best to discharge it. The country loved him for this.

Is Mr Obama an FDR for the new century? A president has many ways of ruining his reputation, and this is a different world, yet the idea looks plausible. Like Roosevelt, Mr Obama inherits a crisis not of his making. Like Roosevelt, he is brimming with energy to get things done. Like Roosevelt - happy days are here again - he has given the country a jolt of optimism just by turning up. FDR understood that his greatest strength was not being Hoover; he emphasised (and exaggerated) the differences. Mr Obama gets it and does not have to try so hard. Could he be more different from George W. Bush?

Some of Roosevelt's paths to reverence are closed. The transition is likely to be co-operative. The outgoing administration has already acted boldly to stabilise the financial system. Mr Obama will build on that - much as FDR's jobs programmes expanded and rebranded some of Hoover's. In managing the immediate crisis, he will find it difficult to make a decisive break. As for attitudes to government, a change as great as the one FDR made can happen only once.

Like FDR, on the other hand, Mr Obama accepts the duty to provide economic security more eagerly than his predecessor did, at a time when that promise, however difficult it may be to keep, has great new appeal. He has a signature policy as well - healthcare reform - that gives that obligation concrete form and could do for his place in history what social security did for Roosevelt's.

Above all, like FDR, Mr Obama is a great persuader. When it comes to making voters believe he is on their side, he is to Mr Bush as Roosevelt was to Hoover. An early economic recovery would be good, but FDR showed that some things matter more.


Jump to comments
Presented by

Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Business

Just In