Will Obama be FDR to McCain’s Hoover?

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Manisha Sinha is an Associate Professor in Afro-American Studies and History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Since the financial crisis precipitated a global economic melt-down, political pundits, historians, and the candidates themselves have made numerous comparisons between recent events and the Great Depression of 1929. Joe Biden’s slip-up on when exactly the Depression took place pales in comparison to John McCain’s far fetched claim that Obama’s tax plans are similar to President Herbert Hoover’s, under whose watch the Depression started.

McCain’s allegations have oscillated wildly from accusing Obama of imitating the Republican Hoover’s economic policies that deepened the crisis to accusing him of being a “socialist.” If indeed “Hoovervilles,” settlements of the homeless unemployed, spring up in America again, the country would have to thank George W. Bush for them. However, as the distinguished historian of the Depression era and FDR, William E. Leuchtenberg, has recently pointed out Bush is no Hoover and to call him that would be to insult Hoover’s historical memory. Hoover was not incapable but mired in Republican economic orthodoxy that prevented him from responding more creatively to the situation he confronted. A technocrat rather than a politician, Hoover, according to his biographer Joan Hoff Wilson, was actually a fairly competent President, who had the misfortune to preside over a Depression brought about by decade long Republican policies that favored the rich and squeezed the middle and working classes and massive over speculation on Wall Street.

Sound familiar? FDR’s election in 1932 and his subsequent Presidential terms marked a historic political realignment creating a new Democratic majority of liberals, workers, immigrants, African Americans and women (dubbed infamously by Republican political strategists as “special interests”) and laid the foundations of a limited American version of the welfare state. If Obama is elected President of the United States, will his election be the result of a similar historic political realignment and the inauguration of a new progressive economic agenda?

After a year of evoking Lincoln’s words and Kennedy’s charisma, Obama recently has been channeling his inner FDR. He repeated Roosevelt’s words, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself,” and his economic advisers have been hinting at an activist First Hundred Days economic program reminiscent of FDR’s first hundred days in office. Ironically, Roosevelt’s initial economic policies were fairly conservative but his subsequent support for Democratic policies and laws propelled labor organization and created a minimal economic safety net for American citizens. Similarly, the recent economic crisis has pushed Obama, who is a political and economic pragmatist, more to the progressive side. He seems to be listening to economists and commentators like Paul Krugman, who have called for public works expenditures and even deficit financing to propel economic growth and fairness. The ghost of Milton Friedman and his followers may finally be laid to rest and Keynesianism will have the last laugh.

Obama has to move beyond fiscal conservatism and a balanced budget, a goal already achieved by the Democrats under Bill Clinton and destroyed subsequently by Republican laissez faire policies and mismanagement, to an activist economic agenda that will tackle head on our current crisis. Obama has also called for linking for the first time minimum wage increases with cost of living increases. The germs of a new New Deal are already present in his proposed economic program. Obama’s promise to provide health care for all Americans, regardless of age or need, will substantially expand and overhaul Medicare and Medicaid. And his plans for creating a renewable energy policy will not only push the United States toward a twenty-first century economy but might also create a new American century of economic prosperity and worldwide political leadership.

As the historian Sean Wilentz has recently noted, Obama’s election will spell the end of the Age of Reagan and a President Obama can build on the historical legacy of both the Roosevelts, Theodore Roosevelt’s trust busting and Fair Deal and FDR’s New Deal. If Reagan and his conservative warriors wanted to unravel the New Deal state, Obama and his progressive hordes will revamp and expand it. Most Americans now realize that business will not regulate itself and that abject adherence to the gods of profit maximization at any cost, small government and deregulation, and a winner-take-all economy will end up destroying capitalism itself. Like FDR, Obama may prove to be not a “Marxist” or “socialist” but the savior of worldwide capitalism against its own worst tendencies. Indeed, he sounds endearingly old-fashioned in his rejection of the survival of the fittest theory and his belief that we are our brother’s keepers. Even more importantly, political historians and scientists who have bemoaned the cultural divisions between the so-called minority constituencies of the Democratic party and its blue-collar working class base, the Reagan Democrats, may live to witness an African American President revive the Democratic progressive coalition, energized also by a new generation of voters, and the economic policies of FDR.

A black Democrat, sensitive to the country’s tragic history of enslavement and racial discrimination, would also avoid the biggest mistakes of the Roosevelt administration: Japanese internment, the failure to address forthrightly racial apartheid in the southern states for fear of alienating Dixiecrats, and the turning away of Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany. Ironically, despite its limited government philosophy it is the Bush administration with its unconstitutional detention and torture policies that has inherited this unseemly side of twentieth century statism. On the other hand, Obama is an heir to the political heritage of the modern Democratic Party, FDR’s New Deal liberalism and the Civil Rights and freedom struggles of the 1960s.

An Obama administration might be just the right antidote to the demonization of Muslims as terrorists and represent the best amalgam of modern western liberalism, a commitment to social justice, racial equity and cultural tolerance. But like FDR, Obama must deal with wars and conflicts not of his making. Here, he has given some of his supporters pause for calling for the escalation of the war in Afghanistan at the same time as ending the American occupation of Iraq. Like FDR’s “good war” against Nazism and Fascism that helped rescue the United States and the world from the Depression and political tyranny, Obama’s “right war” against terrorism may yet save a secular, progressive, tolerant and internationalist vision of democracy from religious fundamentalism, intolerance and obscurantism at home and abroad. And if the post-war period of the 1940s and 1950s is any guide, then Obama’s commitment to internationalism and bilateralism indicates that he would follow FDR’s footsteps in foreign policy as well. His more measured response, in comparison to McCain’s saber rattling, to the Russia/ Georgia conflict indicates that he would be guided by the internationalist principles that led to the founding of the United Nations and are represented in its founding charter than the Cold War policies of FDR’s successors. For Obama and his foreign policy advisers, the war in Afghanistan is the right war like the Second World War and the Iraq War, the wrong one like the Vietnam War, one that the United States should never have gotten into and that did not involve its national security interests. He rejects the bipolar view of the world that led to Vietnam and Iraq. Obama repeatedly evokes his personal history to document his truly “American journey” to political prominence. But perhaps it is his cosmopolitan background that will make him an ideal first citizen of not just his country but the world.   

In the end, one might ask, where in this picture does John McCain fit? Even though McCain is a presidential candidate and not the President, he, more than Bush, is a lot like Herbert Hoover. Until this presidential campaign McCain, like Hoover, was associated with the progressive side of Republican politics. His opposition to Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest and torture was commendable even though he has backtracked on both fronts on becoming the Republican presidential candidate. But like Hoover and most members of the Republican party then and now, McCain seems to lack any understanding of the economic plight of the average American citizen. Like Hoover, he believes that the “fundamentals” of the economy are still strong. Locked into the Republican economic orthodoxy of limited government even as the world comes crashing down around him, McCain like Hoover seems to be incapable of coming up with any solution to the present economic crisis.

Like Hoover, McCain has also demonstrated a political ineptness that has all but obliterated the more positive aspects of his record. As political commentators have repeatedly pointed out, the rhetorical strategies of the Republicans and the McCain campaign, whether it is “Joe the plumber” or smear tactics, cannot disguise the fact that both the party and its candidate are as out of touch with the common man and bread and butter issues in 2008 as they were in 1932. The recent McCain-Palin mantra of accusing Obama of socialist and “resdistributionist” ideas also mimic the Republican criticism of yesteryears of the New Deal programs. And if McCain is the 2008 version of Herbert Hoover, then his running mate Sarah Palin is surely a modern day incarnation of all the populist right-wing nut jobs of the 1930s, like Father Coughlin who haunted America’s air waves like she haunts our televisions. On a more serious note though, her campaign of innuendo and intolerance imitates the worst of a bygone era. If history is any guide, the McCain-Palin ticket deserves to lose.

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Robert Lee Gaston - 11/6/2008

As Pogo was want to say, "We have met the enemy, and he is us".

Raul A Garcia - 11/6/2008

I don't want a Hoover vacuum "cleaner" or an FDR montage of public works ad nauseaum, but the fact is the "free market" advocacy here is not enough. I don't see private enterprise "rescuing" the tax paying electorate either. Clinton continued the global/NAFTA approach; it seems overvalued stocks, real estate, were global. Global greed? Definitely a factor, so we can spread the blame around at capitalist elites here and in China. I was eating New Zealand apples the other day, and my wife an orange from South Africa. Is this really desirable? I think of the costs of transport and pollution,etc. They've cut our education budgets enormously, reduced our bandwidth affecting computing. Thankfully, we still produce enough food. I am tired of gadgets and posturing. Can't cinch my belt much any more.

Robert Lee Gaston - 11/5/2008

Before you hope that Mr. Obama becomes a new FDR you consider the fact that one of the worse years of the great depression was 1937 and FDR had been in office for 5 years.

The academic community is just getting around to admitting that the new deal prolonged the depression by about 7 years.

Raul A Garcia - 11/5/2008

Well, great campaign, the electorate "feels good" but we do have a crisis. The economic malaise is also beyond our borders and sustained growth (not just urban sprawl- who can afford the houses anyway?)a fundamental problem. The alternative energies tech future is not just a trendy topic and possibly a real way out of this boondoggle. The momentary respite in gas prices should not give us a false sense of "market morality". Mr. Obama, congratulation, after January, we all need to get to work (if we are still working). Hoover/FDR comparisons aside, somebody better get to work in Washington because the electorate expects it. I think you will have at least eight years and your probable Democratic successor at least another term, and a large complement of amenable Congressmen to support you. Posturing and "feeling good" will last only so long. Amen brother.

Donald Wolberg - 11/3/2008

A teacher of many years ago, Leslie Erskine Spock, once a graduate student on the Roy Chapman Andrews expeditions to Asia, once chastized me with," Young man, many frivolous words do not substitute for fewer meaningful words." Ms Sinha has seen fit to be a politically inspired revisionist of history, orividing us with many frivolous words that could stand improvement with more meaningful words of substance. Acomparison of Mr. McCain to Mr. Hoover has about as much significance as that of Mr. Obama to Mr. Roosevelt. Indeed, one might make the case of a McCain-Roosevelt comparison and an Obama-McGovern side by side would be more fit and save Ms Sinha from "bad history" honors. Of course, the Roosevelt of this comparison would be the Bull Moose himself, Teddy, and the McGovern comparison would much more resemble the left-leaning, "redistributive" politician with the odd following of supporters Mr. Obama than the later Roosevelt of 1932. One should always remember FDR was man of very great political and elected experience, unlike Mr. Obama, with not a substantive shred of accomplishment. By comparison, Mr. Roosevelt did not have the tinge of the bizarre assemblage of "retired" but not reformed terrorists such as Mr. Ayles or Ms Dorn to explain. FDR did not have to say he had "religious deafness" whil attending the rediculous sermonizing and casting of the United States as the tool of the Devil so characteristic of Mr. Wright or Mr. Phleger. Similarly, the less than intellectually satisfying rhetoric of Mr. Jackson or Mr. Sharpton elluded FDR.

Ms Sinha sees economic "crisis" of the now may well be more agenda driven than real and a crisis of confidence rather than of the economy. Unemployment manages to be at 6% or so, a tad above the 20 year average of 5.8%, but in a nation of 335,000,000 and not 130,000,000 of 1932. The "crisis" mentality becomes transparently political and not economic when one see 60,000 filling stadiums with $100 or more tickets week in and out, and a GDP of $13.5 trillion (that's $13,5000 billion!) and gasoline prices lowered as the "gas bubble" bursts, putting another $200 billion into the pockets of Americans to spend; a real incentive package of the market place. Of course, Mr. Obama had difficulty rembering if America consisted of "57 or 58 States," and was opposed to finding more oil, even to the extent of proclaiming tha. "we need to do away with all forms of carbon," proving by these two mispeaks that he must have failed geography and history, and knows little about chemistry. But them polemic seems more significant to Ms Sinha than historical fact.