Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A tale of two Presidents

When we look at what appears to be President Obama's deteriorating political situation -- the likelihood that the man who inspired such high hopes will ended up tagged as the guy who couldn't get too many of us back to work -- there's an impulse to compare Obama negatively with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Didn't Roosevelt come in as banks were shutting their doors? Didn't he immediately start a slew of programs including the Public Works Administration, Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps that put millions to work.?

Yes -- Roosevelt did initiate those programs. And they put millions to work very quickly. But it's hard for us to imagine how much freer to act Roosevelt was than Obama is today. By the time of his inauguration in March 1933, non-farm worker unemployment was something like 37 percent! Angry people who were losing everything were storming government buildings including the Nebraska statehouse and the Seattle city town hall. On the eve of Roosevelt's inauguration, the New York Herald-Tribune ran the headline: "FOR DICTATORSHIP IF NECESSARY." Newspaper columnist Walter Lippman, the David Broder-like grand old man of that time's journalism, suggested to the new President that he should take "dictatorial powers." But Roosevelt didn't want to go there and chose to continue to work through Constitutional institutions. (Good historical summary here.)

Economist Jamie Galbraith recently suggested that

Obama's objective situation is much more like Herbert Hoover's than it is like Roosevelt's.

That seems right. The financial arrangements that have dominated the U.S. economy since 1980 have shown themselves to be utterly unsustainable for all but privileged inside players. But the way out of the hole the bankers have dug for us is unclear. The status of the United States in the world is changing: in Roosevelt's day the country was the ascendant international power if it wanted the job (folks were still dubious about empire); now we're a declining imperium in an ever more multi-polar world. Declining powers tend to lose their flexibility. And this President, like Hoover, seems inclined to lean on "expert" policy wonks, not to listen to the anger building among ordinary people.

So far, the crash of 2008 was not enough to create a popular demand that shakes up the congealed organs of government. Even Obama's first and most important economic initiative, the stimulus, was pared down by carping Congresscritters in ways that were obviously counterproductive. Probably the most useful thing the feds could have done would have been to backstop state budgets hit hard by lower tax revenues -- state programs would have kept millions of teachers, park rangers and civil servants working. But no, that was too much government intervention for too many Congress people, including some Democrats. And even at his moment of greatest popularity, this President did not choose to fight the legislative gridlock.

It's not enough to say, Roosevelt would have jammed it through. Roosevelt could (and did) jam things through Congress because the Congress was scared of peasants with pitchforks at their doors.

It's hard to know whether more populists with pitchforks (and I don't mean deluded teabaggers who think they are fighting "socialism") would get Obama to fight for drastic economic remedies. Obama has proved he's good at doing what it takes to get elected. He has not proved he's a fighter for any popular agenda. But Hoover-like fancy technical fixes are meaningless to people who are hurting. And hurting people take it out on Presidents.

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