FDR, Hoover, leadership, and history

The New York Times ran an op-ed this past Sunday (August 7) about President Obama’s leadership, or lack thereof. I don’t necessarily disagree with the author’s and others’ critique of President Obama’s handling of our current political crises. He and other writers also contrast Obama’s style with that of Franklin Roosevelt’s. These comparisons, however, force history into convenient parallels—as the matching metaphors for the respective crises each faced, what some now call the Great Recession and what many remember as the Great Depression, suggest—rather than gain from the perspective it might offer.

It is true that the recent recession is the largest period of economic contraction and turmoil the United States has experienced since the depression of the 1930s. It is also worth recognizing that while the recent recession was dubbed “great” within a year of its onset, at a similar point after it began in 1929, the interwar depression was not yet called or considered “great.” Indeed, the expression “Great Depression” when it was used at the time, referred to the period from the late 1870s to the 1890s, what is now sometimes called the “Long Depression” and still the longest period of consecutive economic recession in the history of the United States. As historians of the period, perhaps most notably Robert McIlvaine, have observed, the “Great Depression” of the 1930s became “great” over time, as years passed and with hindsight. Contributing significantly to this commemorative process of naming and renaming was the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Contemporary observers are correct in their recollection of Roosevelt’s bold leadership, remembered by many, and in many history texts, for his First Inaugural—where he famously declared to the American people “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”—and the mandate he assumed for the policies of what he called the New Deal. It is this strong assertion that many, in comparison, ask of President Obama today.

Forgotten in such calls, however, are the historical circumstances that allowed Roosevelt to be and act so boldly. He delivered his first Inaugural in March 1933, three and a half-years after the stock market crash of 1929. His speech and its program, indeed, his election, were responses to the policies of Herbert Hoover, under whose presidency the nation lived those first three and a half years of the interwar depression.

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