Why President Obama can’t make like FDR on jobs
Why President Obama can’t make like FDR on jobs
President Barack Obama can probably recite this line in his sleep: Be bold, and rip a page from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal playbook and institute crash programs like Works Project Administration and Civilian Conservation Corp.
They would put tens of thousands of jobless back to work, pump up consumer spending, stave off a deeper recession and trump the GOP mantra that only private industry can create jobs and boost the economy. It’s a good line, and if 1933 America could be reprised again, putting government directly in the business of job creation would not only work, but be a necessity.
This isn’t 1933. And President Obama can’t make like FDR for several compelling reasons. Back then, the nation was flat on its back. One in three Americans was unemployed. The stock market, the banks and major industry had collapsed. The GOP was ridiculed and discredited. The labor movement was on the ascendancy, the until-then small and totally marginalized Communist Party was getting a hearing from more and more down and out unemployed workers.
The major financiers and industrialists genuinely feared social upheaval, even revolution. The horror of creating deficits by government spending and a drumbeat media echo chamber to turn the airwaves into a electronic bully pulpit to badger, hector, harangue and pillory FDR at every turn for spending too much didn’t exist. There was an actual government surplus then, and no major debt.
FDR in effect had carte blanche to do something and do something drastic and fast. The dizzying array of alphabet New Deal government job creation programs were applauded by a majority of Americans, and effectively dampened the simmering sparks of rebellion.
President Obama has none of the luxuries FDR had and all of the liabilities that FDR did not have. One need not speculate about the wrath that he’d incur from millions who passionately believe that he’s a closet socialist and his economic policies have doused the private sector if he advocated government job programs.
The reaction to the stimulus package stirred hysteria among most GOP leaders, officials, voters and a significant number of conservative and even moderate independents. They railed at it as naked big government expansion, and reckless spending by a liberal Democratic president. The public vilification, political opposition and conservative media pounding that Obama would take if he tried the FDR approach to jobs would be titanic.
Even if Obama was willing to risk the firestorm of protest and thumb his nose at the GOP, there’s little chance that he’d get even a handful of Senate Democrats to back a government job creation program.
Let’s turn back the clock again to the 1930s to get a better picture of what Obama would face if he tried to make like FDR and create government jobs. FDR won a landslide reelection in 1936. But two years later in the 1938 midterm elections, a resurgent GOP dumped dozens of Democrats from the Senate and the House. The issue that the GOP latched onto to ramp up their numbers is pretty much the same issue the GOP uses to sledgehammer Obama, and that’s his alleged failures on the economy.
The economy had taken another nose dive after 1936, and unemployment crept up higher from its still double digit numbers. The GOP played hard on the feeling that the New Deal wasn’t working. That it had run out of steam and that the real answer to the nation’s economic crisis was to turn things back over to big business and let it run the economic ship without the Roosevelt and New Deal governmental restraints, agencies, tampering and meddling.
Roosevelt ignored the administration baiters and moved left. In a fireside chat, FDR talked bluntly with the American people immediately after the 1938 election and made it clear he would not reverse course and that he’d do everything he could to “create an economic upturn” by keeping the government firmly in the business of creating jobs and economic security for the millions still suffering from the Depression.
He could do that and make it work because he still had the broad support of by now a powerful union movement and his intact electoral coalition of farmers, urban ethnics and African American voters behind him.
In 2010 the GOP took the House and a good chunk of the Senate back and it promptly followed the 1938 script with FDR. It claimed the near sweep was a total rejection of the Obama administration’s program on health care, financial reform and stimulus spending. They also claimed that Americans loudly clamor for a return to fiscal conservatism and permanent tax cuts for the super rich.
Obama had no choice but to read the political leaves and conclude that though jobs were the real need of Americans and the only real way to ignite and stimulate a floundering economy, there was no political possibility to get even a tepid version of FDR’s WPA program in place. To think that Obama can make like FDR in these times is fantasy.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.