Tuesday, April 28, 2009
It was interesting to get some historical perspective from Jonathan Alter's book The Defining Moment, which basically argues that Roosevelt was the perfect man at the exact moment he was needed, to restore Americans' confidence, make dramatic changes, and save capitalism. But Alter recognizes that Roosevelt took some steps in his first few months that almost everyone would now agree were counter-productive. Accepting the prevailing economic orthodoxy, he ordered massive cuts in federal spending, at the very time that the government should have been increasing the deficit to stimulate the economy. This probably delayed economic recovery. Roosevelt also set up the NRA, which started regulating business in a way that did not always generate more employment.
On the other hand, Roosevelt immediately started restoring the confidence of the American people, by means of his strong Inaugural Address and his reassuring fireside chats, and by a flurry of executive actions and legislation. Some of these actions, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, the TVA, and the beginnings of securities regulation, unquestionably had lasting value. Roosevelt's most enduring accomplishment, the Social Security Act, did not come for several years, however.
President Obama did not have to face an economic crisis as difficult as we had in 1933, but he has had the challenge of setting a new direction in foreign policy at the same time as he had to deal with a very bad economy. So while keeping the banking system afloat (which was also of course Roosevelt's very first concern on taking office), and enacting a massive stimulus bill, he has also set the nation on a different course in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has already improved relations with both adversaries and allies.
President Obama has also managed to make a sharp break with the Bush administration, get his legislative agenda in motion, and start stabilizing the economy, without quite as much political room to maneuver as Roosevelt had. Things were so bad in 1933 that the American people would have tolerated near-dictatorial powers from the new administration. President Obama has had to work much more within the traditional political framework.