Maybe We’re Overdoing The FDR Comparison

Clive Crook’s Financial Times column from the weekend is posted on The title is What Obama Can Learn from FDR. But the conclusion you’ll draw from reading the whole thing is that there’s not much more than coincidence that unites the two.

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. [ . . . ]

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. [ . . . ]

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.

Crook suggests that the TARP is the big programmatic change. By stepping back from it, Obama is only raising the stakes on what he plans to do next. Obama may be charismatic, but his signature style is understatement, not the larger than life optimism that got Roosevelt (and Reagan, for that matter) so much leeway even from their detractors.


What Obama Can Learn From FDR
The Atlantic, November 7, 2008

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