April 27, 2006
BOY, HE SURE RACED DOWN THAT DEAD END (via Matt Murphy):
What FDR Teaches Us: Long Shadow: A new book relives his first 100 days. Have a look, Mr. President. (Jonathan Alter, 5/01/06, Newsweek)
On one level, it's unfair to compare a sitting president to his predecessors, especially when he has more than two and a half years to go. And it's doubly unfair to compare George Walker Bush, currently experiencing some of the lowest approval ratings in the history of polling, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who is on the list of even conservative historians as one of our best presidents. But juxtaposing the two men may shed some light on both Roosevelt's unusual gifts and Bush's current troubles. FDR's presidency can offer some useful lessons—for today's White House, and for anyone intrigued by the mysteries of leadership. [...]
Two weeks after barely dodging assassination in Miami in February of 1933, Roosevelt took office and performed a similar conjuring act on a larger stage. With the banks closed and millions of Americans wiped out, FDR used his "first-class temperament" to treat the mental depression of Americans without curing their economic one. In the days following his "fear itself" Inaugural and first "Fireside Chat," the same citizens who had lined up the month before to withdraw their last savings from the bank (and stuff it under the mattress or tape it to their chests) lined up to redeposit patriotically. This astounding act of ebullient leadership marked the "defining moment" of modern American politics, when Roosevelt saved both capitalism and democracy within a few weeks and redefined the bargain—the "Deal"—the country struck with its own people.
In "The Defining Moment," my new book examining FDR's election and storied Hundred Days, I don't draw explicit comparisons with Bush. But they're hard to ignore.
In fact, as David M. Kennedy points out in his entirely orthodox liberal history of the period for the Oxford History of the United States, Freedom from Fear, FDR's hundred Days were a complete flop and it was only several terms later that the economy started growing again in any meaningful way, largely because we were building stuff to sell to the Europeans who were at war. Meanwhile, the notion that capitalism and democracy were in any peril is the kind of claptrap you get from folks who don't believe in them to begin with, else they'd not think them so fragile.
It is worth considering though what George W. Bush would have accomplished with a congressional majority and a landslide victory of the size that FDR was handed by circumstances in 1932. The undoing of the New Deal/Great Society would be much further along, with personalized retirement accounts, universal school vouchers and perhaps even some kind of universal HSAs. We'll likely still manage to undo the damage FDR caused, but it will take a while longer.Posted by Orrin Judd at April 27, 2006 7:54 AM