Joe Nocera: 75 Years Later, a Nation Hopes for Another F.D.R.





“We are facing the greatest economic challenge of our lifetime, and we’re going to have to act swiftly to resolve it.”

So said Barack Obama on Friday in his first postelection news conference, a pretty good sign that the president-elect had been brushing up on his presidential history. Seventy-five years ago, the last time the country was this close to economic abyss, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his famous inaugural, the one where he uttered those immortal words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

But as a Newsweek columnist, Jonathan Alter, who wrote “The Defining Moment,” a book about Roosevelt’s first election and early presidency, pointed out to me the other day, that great line was buried in most news stories about the speech. Stories focused instead on another phrase F.D.R. used: “action, and action now.” In 1933, after three years of incompetence from the administration of Herbert Hoover, that is what Americans most yearned to hear. And on Friday, when Mr. Obama vowed, within the first five minutes of his remarks, to “act swiftly,” he too was offering the same message to a country every bit as receptive.

In the news conference, the president-elect laid out his short-term economic agenda: a stimulus package to prod the economy that he hopes will pass before he even takes office; extended unemployment benefits and other relief measures for people who are struggling; and an effort to stem the rising tide of foreclosures, probably led by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which has been pressing the Bush administration for weeks to sign off on a plan it devised ages ago.

Mr. Obama made it plain that he would not let the American auto industry die. He wants to provide economic assistance to state and local governments that have been hurt by the financial crisis. And he promised a review of the bailout program “to ensure that the government’s efforts are achieving their central goal of stabilizing financial markets while protecting taxpayers, helping homeowners and not unduly rewarding the management of financial firms that are receiving government assistance.” (Take that, Wall Street!)

No specifics, not on Friday, anyway. Mr. Obama is surely being inundated with ideas about how to best achieve his goals from his prominent economic advisers, which he will have to sort out in his own mind. No Treasury secretary announcement either. He made it clear that he was not going to be stampeded into making a choice before he’s ready.

All very reasonable — understandable, even. But I couldn’t help feeling just a little let down that he didn’t have anything more specific to offer, or anything more inspirational. Throughout the news conference, Mr. Obama projected a kind of crisp competence — an executive figuring out a practical plan of attack — rather than presenting himself as he had so often during the campaign, as an inspirational leader. And in my momentary letdown, I realized that I had been hoping to see, even this early, something that many other Americans are also wishing for. ... I was hoping to see the new F.D.R. Maybe we will yet. We sure could use him right about now....


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