Newswise — The Nov. 24, 2008, edition of TIME Magazine featured President-elect Barack Obama's face juxtaposed on Franklin D. Roosevelt's body, complete with confident beaming smile and cigarette holder. With experts describing the current national economy as the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, how valid are comparisons to the challenges faced by FDR then and the challenges facing Obama now? Dr. Kris McCusker, associate professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, says a one-for-one comparison is very tempting because of how scary the recession is for us. Stylistically, it's even somewhat warranted.
"Obama, in some ways, is a new FDR in that he's got that eloquent way of speaking," McCusker says. "He's able to use new media in really profound ways. In Obama's case, it's electronic media, particularly e-mail. In FDR's case, it's the use of radio and his ability to speak directly to his constituents."
However, McCusker says she viewed that magazine cover with a jaundiced eye, and not only because the original photo showed FDR next to his dour, unsmiling predecessor, Herbert Hoover, who is blamed for allowing the economy to spiral out of control in the early 1930s. For all the angst we feel during these unstable times, America's current economic woes don't compare to the ones FDR faced.
"During the Great Depression, the national unemployment rate was 25 percent," McCusker notes, compared to the 6.7 percent rate posted for November 2008. "In heavy industrial centers like Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, it was 50 percent. In some industrial centers in Ohio, it was 80 percent."
Furthermore, the notion that government could step into the breach and offer some far-reaching remedy was radical, controversial, and unprecedented. FDR's two Republican predecessors, Calvin Coolidge and Warren G. Harding, "wanted to have so little federal government that, if it closed down, nobody noticed, and the main place most people saw the federal government was at the post office and only there," McCusker states.
FDR's embrace of British economist John Maynard Keynes' philosophy that the government's share of gross domestic product should increase in dire economic circumstances shattered all previous paradigms for Americans' relationship with federal authority. The classical economic theory that a nation beset by economic woes was a tempest-tossed boat, a God-given calamity that could be faced only by riding out the storm, was replaced with a spate of public works programs.
Obama, too, has proposed public works programs to repair the nation's crumbling infrastructure and provide jobs, but McCusker says the critical difference is that FDR's New Deal created new economies where none previously existed. Obama's proposed "shovel-ready" fix-em-up jobs constitute a short-term solution by comparison.
"It doesn't have the long-term ramifications that the farm-to-markets road-building program through the Works Progress Administration had in Tennessee during the 1930s," McCusker cites as an example.
Nonetheless, the enduring lesson of the New Deal for Obama is that, like FDR, he confronts new challenges that call for innovative measures. McCusker says Obama, like FDR, must reach out for a new philosophy, one that embraces the fact that the economy is a global one based on the proliferation and accessibility of information.
Another blast from the past that bears a faint resemblance to the present is the condemnation of FDR as a socialist in some quarters and suspicions by some contemporary conservatives that Obama will take the United States in a socialist direction. McCusker says FDR actually made it his mission to preserve capitalism by making it "relatively safe," and Obama is similarly situated.
"Socialism is the ownership of the means of production by the working class—traditionally, intellectually and historically," McCusker observes. "The government does not take over ownership of things. Government is a catalyst and it incites change. It doesn't pay for it, and it doesn't buy it, and that's a very different model than a socialist model or a communist model based on either the intellectual roots of it or the actual political manifestations in places like Russia."
McCusker says the meaning of "saving capitalism" for Obama seems to be efficiency. For example, he proposes using a behavioral economist to apply real-life consumer spending tendencies to cutting the costs of government programs. In the Medicare program, the requirement that clients pay for prescriptions on a monthly basis is prompting some to skip their medication for months because the cost of a one-month supply has depleted their funds. Instead of trying to change human behavior, the government would change its policy to accommodate the clients' needs in a cost-effective way.
For FDR, the first 100 days of his administration have passed into historic legend as a whirlwind of executive initiative and legislative compliance. The Tennessee Valley Authority, Civilian Conservation Corps, Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and Federal Emergency Relief Administration were created during this period.
How important are "the first 100 days" of the Obama administration? Roosevelt had to wait until March 4, 1933, to be sworn in, a delay that was a concession to a less industrial republic whose leaders made their way to Washington on muddy, bumpy roads rather than by train or airplane. The 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was not ratified until 1937, moved the date up to Jan. 20, when most presidents since FDR's second term have recited the oath.* As far as McCusker is concerned, Obama's "first 100 days" began on Nov. 5, the day after the election, and his transition team has moved apace accordingly while taking great pains not to encroach on the territory of outgoing President George W. Bush. *The exceptions are Harry S. Truman, who took office upon Roosevelt's death in office in 1944; Lyndon B. Johnson, who was sworn in after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963; and Gerald R. Ford, who took the oath upon the resignation of Richard M. Nixon in 1974.