March 24, 2010
Democrats unreservedly revere Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and they've beatified him into secular sainthood. Republicans honor FDR for his leadership during World War II. Roosevelt is unique: No other American president has served more than two terms. And unless the Constitution is amended, no other president ever will.
Question: How would we remember Roosevelt had he not served a third term?
Rather differently. Without a third term, FDR would be remembered as the president who presided over the Great Depression, period. Though FDR inherited it, the Depression lasted throughout his first two terms and beyond, more than twice as long as it did under Hoover. And every mistake Hoover made, FDR repeated, and in spades. As Andrew B. Wilson in The Wall Street Journal explains:
Far from a free-market idealist, Hoover was an ardent believer in government intervention to support incomes and employment. This is critical to understanding the origins of the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt didn't reverse course upon moving into the White House in 1933; he went further down the path that Hoover had blazed over the previous four years. That was the path to disaster. [...] the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations -- in disregarding market signals at every turn -- were jointly responsible for turning a panic into the worst depression of modern times. As late as 1938, after almost a decade of governmental "pump priming," almost one out of five workers remained unemployed.
Although there is some debate about the exact numbers, the unemployment rates throughout FDR's first two terms were indisputably abysmal. Bill Beach of the Heritage Foundation concludes: "It was still the worst unemployment our nation has seen. It didn't get better until the war was on." (Larger sizes of the following chart can be found here.)
Despite the pain of millions of Americans during his first two terms, it is precisely this part of FDR's tenure that generations of Democrats have held up as his triumph. That's because the first two terms were when FDR and his compliant Congress expanded government. It doesn't matter that Americans were hungry, nor even that the New Deal prolonged the Depression. No, what matters to Democrats is that we have a bright shiny new set of agencies, bureaus, and entitlements.
FDR's record would have been further tarnished had someone else been president when America finally recovered. And we can be fairly confident that the Depression would have ended on Willkie's watch. Why? Because any change would have been an improvement: FDR & Co. were doing everything wrong.
"Everything wrong" is the assessment recently given Pres. Obama by editor Mort Zuckerman: "[H]e's trying to boil the ocean, trying to do too much. This is not leadership." Obama fancies himself a transformative president in the mold of FDR. And the two do indeed have some things in common. Here are a few:
Like with FDR, unemployment is not at the top of Obama's agenda. In "How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America," the cover story for the March issue of the Atlantic, Don Peck writes:
The unemployment rate hit 10 percent in October, and there are good reasons to believe that by 2011, 2012, even 2014, it will have declined only a little. Late last year, the average duration of unemployment surpassed six months, the first time that has happened since 1948, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking that number. As of this writing, for every open job in the U.S., six people are actively looking for work.
FDR never balanced the budget, and he ran the highest deficits in history. And this came after a full decade of back-to-back surpluses. With trillion-dollar deficits for as far as the eye can see, no one sees a balanced budget under Obama.
FDR flouted the Constitution, suffering several setbacks from the Supreme Court. And just as we predicted, the states are resisting Obamacare on constitutional grounds. On March 17, Idaho Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter signed a measure requiring his attorney general to sue the federal government over the constitutionality of Obamacare's individual mandate. John Miller of the Associated Press reports:
There's similar legislation pending in 37 other states, a point Otter stressed when asked if the bill he signed can succeed, given constitutional law experts are already saying federal laws would supersede those of states in a U.S. District Court fight."The ivory tower folks will tell you, 'No, they're not going anywhere,'" he told reporters. "But I'll tell you what, you get 36 states, that's a critical mass. That's a constitutional mass."
Perhaps the states will save America from the federal government. Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli has promised a challenge to Obamacare. (Is contempt for the Constitution a trait of transformative presidents?)
FDR came to power in 1933, the same year as Hitler. But while Hitler immediately set out to trash the Treaty of Versailles, put troops in the Rhineland, build up a massive war machine, and invade his neighbors, FDR busied himself with his domestic agenda. Likewise, Obama busies himself with his domestic agenda (Obamacare, cap-and-trade, amnesty for illegal aliens, etc.) while Iran inches ever closer to having nukes.
FDR desperately needed a third term to salvage his legacy. FDR began to redeem himself on the day that would live in infamy. Without his wartime performance to burnish it, FDR's record would be an abject failure: No other president has presided over two full terms of economic depression.
But hey, we mustn't let anything stand in the way of "fundamentally transforming America."
Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City.