The degree to which the nostalgia for Franklin Delano Roosevelt that informs the prescriptions of those who favor more extensive and more expensive federal programs to right the economy is truly astounding. The most recent example of this is Harold Meyerson’s column in today’s Washington Post:
When Roosevelt became president in 1933, he brought with him plans that progressives had developed over the preceding 30 years for public power and social insurance. When it came to public jobs, however, FDR was improvising — progressives hadn’t envisioned the Depression or how to deal with it. Obama entered office with a similar disconnect: His dance card was filled with health-care reform and climate-change legislation, but nobody had planned for how to deal with the most severe downturn since the 1930s. Roosevelt showed his mettle as a great political leader by pivoting to remedy mass unemployment. This is Obama’s turn to do the same.
There’s one more lesson Obama should learn from FDR. In the words of Anna Burger, the secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, “we need a hammer” — one government official whose sole mission is to oversee the efforts to create more jobs. Roosevelt’s hammer was WPA chief Harry Hopkins. If Obama had a hammer, his new stimulus would be more credible still.
There is a significant difference between the America of today and the America as it was when FDR took office. Back in 1930 government at all levels constituted about 8% of the economy. Today it constitutes roughly 30% of the economy and, when you add the government-financed components of its handmaiden industries of education and healthcare, is teetering towards 50%.
This is not like the Great Depression. This is not like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This is new, uncharted territory for the United States, more like World War II without end than anything else.