Is Obama another FDR?

Barack Obama is very consciously modeling the beginning of his Presidency after Democratic icon Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who is incorrectly credited as the savior of America from the ravages of the Great Depression. Obama is trying to tap into that myth, adding its luster to his own undeniable image of an almost messianic ability to meet all people's problems with focused government intervention. 

But to understand what the President is trying to accomplish, it's important to also understand what Roosevelt really accomplished -- and what he didn't accomplish -- and why, in spite of statistics that prove the contrary, the image remains that Roosevelt did indeed save America from the Great Depression.

Then and Now

Bank closures rock America today, as they did in the Great Depression, but in far fewer numbers. Few realize that the greatest number of bank closures occurred in Roosevelt's first year in office, after his fabled "100 Days." 

  • In 1932, the last full year of Hoover's Administration), 1,493 banks suspended operation - a number significantly below the average of 1,712 banks which closed in each of the first three years after Black Thursday, 1930-1932, and dramatically below the 2,293 banks that closed in 1931, the worst recession year of Hoover's administration.
  • However, after the dramatic impact of Roosevelt's "100 Days" and the creation of his New Deal, 4,000 banks closed in 1933, FDR's first year in office.

Unemployment, currently running at 7.6 percent, is another major measure of economic distress. It is also the most common way that economists mark the beginning --- and the end -- of the Great Depression.

In Roosevelt's first year as President, 1933, and after his vaunted "100 Days" had inaugurated his New Deal to re-employ America, unemployment reached 24.9 percent, down from 23.6 percent in Hoover's worst year.  In subsequent years, unemployment fell slowly, in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- his recovery programs:

  • 21.7 percent in 1934
  • 20.1 percent in 1935
  • 16.9 percent in 1936
  • 14.3 percent in 1937

However, in 1938, unemployment took a sharp upward turn, to 19.0 percent.  This occurred at a time when Europe had pulled itself out of the Depression.  First Sweden, then Germany, and finally Great Britain had all fully recovered to pre-Depression employment levels or better by 1938.  In 1939, while the rest of the worldwide Depression was ending and World War II was moving international focus away from national economies and toward a war for national survival, the US still had a Depression-era unemployment level of 17.2 percent, higher than 1936 or 1937. 

It was not until 1941, when America was finally fully geared up for war and 1.8 million men had volunteered or been drafted -- up from 458,000 in 1940 and 334,000 in 1939 -- and when factories were finally producing war materiel for America and her allies, that US unemployment finally fell below 10 percent.  That relatively low unemployment level was still much higher than today's 7.6 percent unemployment, a rate now considered indicative of a deep recession.  That level of unemployment was not achieved in Roosevelt's America until 1942, well into the World War II, at a time when more than 3.9 million Americans were in uniform.

Roosevelt was able to pull off this image stage-magic because -- compared to today -- the American news media was antediluvian in its sophistication and broad reach.  Newspapers, weekly newsreels in theaters, and some radio news -- although radio was hardly a breaking news medium in pre-war America -- were the only forces for mass information available to report on and shape FDR's image.  Roosevelt also enjoyed a landslide of 62.8% of the vote vs. 52.9 percent for Obama. 

What Roosevelt did through smoke and mirrors, through adroit fireside chats and a lack of aggressive media oversight, Obama will have to do in the face of pervasive talk radio and especially the omnipresent Internet. These uncontrolled and uncontrollable media will not allow President Obama ten years (or ten months) to sustain the illusion that he's saving the economy and restoring 95-plus percent employment. Informed unstoppable questioning is toxic to the creation of myth.

The recent drop in approval ratings (for the President himself, and for his stimulus bill) already shows that.  Wall Street, perhaps the most responsive measure of public trust, took a 400-point nose-dive after Obama's Treasury Secretary announced his economic bail-out plan. Major polls show that barely one third of Americans see the massive "jobs stimulus" bill is more about the wholesale adoption of the ambitious Democratic social agenda than it is about creating jobs.  They see this bill funding abortions in Mexico and restricting religious observances on America's college campuses rather than putting Americans back to work.

In this, Obama should perhaps have more closely modeled his actions on those of his mentor.  While the new President has made it clear that -- even as he funds Frisbee parks and global warming advocacy -- he'll be cutting the kind of programs that FDR embraced, government programs that really put people to work in high-paying jobs.  The President has made it clear that he wants to throw money at everything except the military, but that's the one recovery strategy in which Roosevelt didn't skimp. 

What worked for FDR

A significant part of FDR's jobs program -- a part that actually worked -- was Roosevelt's push to build up the US Navy.  As Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson, FDR knew from first-hand experience that building ships put thousands of skilled workers back on the job, at good wages and with lots of help to blighted communities.  Not just shipwrights, but miners and steel workers and railroaders and truckers (even lumberjacks) went back to work to create a fleet of ships that were justified, not by immediate military necessity, but most compellingly in the present, because they were so effective in putting people to work in the private sector.

Those ships -- built to employ workers -- were then available to win World War II a few years later. Some of FDR's Depression-era ships that made a difference:

  • a. The USS Enterprise (and her sister ships) -- the carriers that won the battle of Midway -- were all depression jobs programs ships.
  • b. The USS South Dakota (and her sisters and near-sisters) were the jobs programs battleships that decisively beat the Japanese in a battleship-vs.-battleship night action off Guadalcanal, and protected with anti-aircraft fire America's last two carriers in other war-winning battles off Guadalcanal.
  • c. The Depression jobs-program fleet boat submarines took the war to Japan, at a time when our fleet was reeling. They launched our first offensive against Japan in mid-December 1941, even while other American ships still burned in Pearl Harbor.

Even without a future war, the Enterprise, the South Dakota, those fleet boat submarines and all the other jobs-program warships had already served their nation well, putting hundreds of thousands of Americans back to work.  However, instead of seeing military hardware such as ships, aircraft and tanks as ideal government-funded jobs program stimulus investments the way Roosevelt did, President Obama has announced his intention to gut the best-in-the-world F-22 Raptor jet fighter, as well as new navy ships, other combat aircraft, replacement tanks and Humvees, and other military hardware that -- when built -- puts Americans to work. 

The one recovery program that Roosevelt did right, President Obama is ignoring. 

Ned Barnett, a political and communications consultant based in Las Vegas, has appeared frequently on the History Channel as an expert on military technology.