Obama Isn't FDR's Second Coming

One could be forgiven, this election cycle, for wondering if one hadn't stumbled into a giant convention of New Deal re-enactors.  Two years ago, Democrats were talking non-stop about the New Deal; now people are praising his FDR-like qualities.  Did previous generations of Americans spend this much time seeking to reincarnate the political battles of eighty years before?

The Civil War generation citing the Founding Fathers, maybe.  But it's hard to think of a case since.  Wouldn't FDR have been a little embarrassed if people were comparing him to James Buchanan or Martin Van Buren?

Not to rain on anyone's parade, but if FDR were here, with his get-tough demeanor and his populist fervor, there's every chance that today he'd be losing big majorities in the House, and desperately trying to explain away the political debacle of his administration.  

FDR took office basically as the financial crisis was bottoming out.  That's not to take away from the good things he did, like propping up the banking system.  But all crises bottom eventually, even if the government's not very effective; it takes Mugabe-style mismanagement, of which Hoover was not guilty, to keep forcing the economy downward for decades at a time.  By the time FDR took office, industrial production had fallen by a third.  It was not actually going to keep declining until no one produced anything and we were all eating rocks.

It's also worth noting that while FDR did some very good things, he also spent the early days doing a bunch of crazy things that were at best useless, like trying to manipulate the gold markets, and at worst extremely counterproductive, like cartelizing every business interaction above the level of a child's lemonade stand.  Had he been here now, he might have tried similar stunts, which would then have been associated with the continued decline of the US economy, putting Democrats--and progressive ideas--in an even worse light.

Obviously, these counterfactuals are sort of silly; if FDR were here, he would be very different in many ways.  But so is complaining that Obama's speeches, or his politics, or his political will, are not sufficiently FDR-like.  FDR lived in a different era.  His speeches come across so well today precisely because they were designed largely to be read; Obama is making speeches for an era when most people get their news from television, and so naturally, his speeches read flat and uninteresting.  FDR's speech delivery, by contrast, was surprisingly poor for an audience used to taking in most of its news in audio or video.

Similarly, FDR presided over an era when the procedural rules hemming in the president were much weaker; when he could make policy largely by getting a few powerful men in the House and Senate on his side; when the starting tax burden was much lower, giving him more room to spend; and when a financial crisis had so thoroughly damaged his political opposition that it would be nearly 20 years before they regained power.  The main thing that Obama is missing is not rhetorical prowess, nor steely populist will.
Presented by

Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin

Join the Discussion

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

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin


Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.


How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.


A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple


What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

More in Politics

Just In