In The News
Nov. 2 revealed what FDR had and Obama didn’t
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
November 7, 2010
Forget all the other historic parallels you’ve been hearing and think about FDR’s first election in 1932.
FDR took office in 1933 facing an even worse economy –- more than three years after the crash of 1929.
The depth of the Great Depression left no one in America questioning either the cause or the need for government to step in with unprecedented boldness. Soup lines were the only hope for a meal, banks had failed, farms and shops were deserted, millions were out of work, and neither the business leaders that spurred the crash nor the previous administration were offering any light to combat the fear.
Maybe that should have been the parallel for the Nov. 2 election. It isn’t. Obama – fortuitous in his 2008 audacity – could have used FDR’s lucky timing (lucky if you overlook the horrors he inherited). FDR didn’t need to erase doubts – three increasing years of suffering did that. The public welcomed action.
But most Americans didn’t suffer that badly under the Bush years, so they were still absorbing pain as Obama took office. Most had never experienced so devastating an economy.
In the Bush years, wages had stagnated for so long that the public almost accepted it as normal. Clinton’s budget surplus was goners and after feeble fits jobs resumed plummeting -- but at a lower steady pace. Foreclosures and the fading housing market were gathering storms. Credit still felt easy to come by – especially for consumers. Those bulging credit card balances make it a myth that Americans were sitting around the kitchen table balancing the budget. And the rich were stashing away profits and assuring the middle class that their upscale wealth, foreign partnerships and outsourcing would eventually benefit everyone.
Obama won because of personality and longing for change but also out of growing doubt: Three-quarters of today’s deficit still belong to Bush’s years, he largely ignored that loss of jobs and the crippling cost in human and economic treasure of an unnecessary war.
But doubt is not stabbing pain. Obama never had FDR’s three years of acid rain.
It was only at the end of the Bush era that the weight of economic brinksmanship took hold through failed financial institutions, Main Street swoon, credit evaporation, foreclosures, higher unemployment. But most of that weight crushed in as Obama became president – more than a million jobs lost before his policies took hold. It’s gotten better since, with positive job growth, but there are lingering memories that it’s worse now than in the final Bush years. True enough to those who can’t look around the corner. Be grateful Obama did.
Perhaps you can blame the new president for not making that case clear, but there was no obvious time frame as FDR had. There is a great difference in living through a Great Depression and acting to avert one.
Intellectually America may have understood it needed government rescue from the philosophy that had caused the problems, but at the polls we need to feel things emotionally, viscerally.
The emotion Nov. 2 was apparently that the government was unnecessarily stepping in. Blame the voters for a slow learning curve, blame the president for not making the case, but include all the other reasons. The media wasn’t about to educate in the facts -- it was making a lot of money feeding the hysteria. The Democrats were blinded by a victory that convinced them the public would automatically understand. The Republicans had every reason to obfuscate and attack.
So it’s understandable, but still a shame, that Obama’s actions didn’t win the credit deserved. Instead, the voters of 2010 – including those who identified themselves as Democrats – believed overwhelming that taxes went up under Obama when his administration actually cut them by $240 billion,
Two to one the voters hadn’t heard that jobs fell every month of Bush’s final years and have now grown steadily for five quarters. They definitely didn’t know the economy grew 3.1% in the last year and they have very mixed feelings when they hear the stock market is booming again.
The mixed feelings stem from the $700 billion taxpayer bailout known as TARP. A late October poll of voter attitudes revealed the majority of voters didn’t know that the troubled assets bailout started under Bush and had bipartisan support – and was only then tweaked and operated successfully under Obama.
Most didn’t know that Wall Street had already paid back its portion of TARP with a $16 billion profit for taxpayers and that all that bailout is on track to become a positive government investment. So TARP worked – as did Obama’s rescue of the auto industry and the Democrats’ stimulus package so erroneously maligned as a failure by those winning GOP candidates. It may not have done as much as was promised in early speeches, not in the face of the continuing damage, but the stimulus actually has created millions of jobs and provided the largest middle class tax cut in the nation’s history.
You have to know you’re falling off a cliff before you reward the rescuer. It’s hard to prove the negative of a bigger disaster avoided. The opposition just saw political opportunity and didn’t throw Obama or the nation a lifeline.
That is the historic lesson. FDR could fight hard and even nasty against his opponents because the public knew what he had inherited and wanted him to take chances. They even cheered him on. Obama didn’t have that sort of time to get the message over or didn’t even think he had to explain the obvious.
In hindsight, perhaps he should have anticipated that voters might doubt his intentions in an increasingly partisan nation. They sure proved quick to accept a warped ideological premise that painted him as a tax-crazed liberal who wanted more government in our lives, as opposed to a cautious progressive correcting what previous governments should have done.
The next two years will probably prove his remedies are right – that the best course for lasting economic vitality is to provide health care to more people, restore infrastructure and push basic advances in education and preparation.
But are these enough remedies for an impatient country in pain? FDR didn’t have to worry about exposing the roots of the pain before pushing for immediate relief. Obama still does but also has to provide speedier relief. Timing sure is everything in politics.