Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal is a brilliant columnist, I almost always agree with him, and regret that I could not have written the same opinions as well as he. But I am stirred to respectful dissent by his column of April 19, which effectively announced his adherence to the heresy that Franklin D. Roosevelt did not really alleviate the Great Depression in his first presidential term, but used his vast public charm and buoyant optimism to put it over on the voters that he had.
The unspeakable rubbish that Roosevelt had given Eastern Europe to Stalin at the Tehran and Yalta Conferences had just been laid to rest when a new hobgoblin arose and was introduced about in respectable company by my esteemed friend Amity Shlaes and others: that Roosevelt didn’t really make much progress against the Depression until the onset of World War II.
Mr. Henninger wrote that FDR’s 1936 reelection campaign took place as the country “was mired in the Great Depression,” and that he “kicked off” his campaign on October 30 of that year at Madison Square Garden in New York with a speech that presaged President Obama’s address on April 3 to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, in which he reviled “social Darwinism.” The columnist concluded that “the Obama campaign can borrow Roosevelt’s content,” but “can’t teach Obama . . . a pretty grim guy . . . how to be FDR.”
No and yes. Everyone, including most Democrats, agrees that this president can’t run on his record, but that is exactly what FDR did in 1936. There are fewer employed people in the United States now than there were when this administration entered office, despite its racking up cumulative federal budget deficits equal to six times the country’s money supply in January 2009.
“Let’s look at the record,” as Roosevelt’s distinguished predecessor as governor of New York and Democratic presidential nominee, Alfred E. Smith, used to say. The economic problems that greeted the incoming administration in 2009 were risible compared with the crisis that awaited Roosevelt in 1933. The unemployment rate was then about 30 percent, not the still-shocking 25 percent that Amity and her claque try to confine it to, and there was no direct relief for the unemployed. They could beg, steal, or starve.
From 1929 to Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933, the volume of check and stock-market transactions had declined by 60 percent, industrial production by 50 percent, the stock market by almost 90 percent, new building by 75 percent, manufacturing output by 65 percent (in dollar value), farm production (though physical volumes were almost the same) by almost 70 per cent (in dollar value), and the money supply by 25 percent; and taxes and tariffs had been raised. The banking and stock- and commodity-exchange systems had collapsed. The exchanges had closed; 5,000 banks had failed, wiping out nine million individual savings accounts (not then guaranteed, until Roosevelt did that), and 98 percent of the country’s banks were closed indefinitely. About 1,400 residential mortgages were being foreclosed every day, and about 45 percent of the country’s family homes were under some level of foreclosure threat. On inauguration day, there were machine-gun nests at the corners of the main federal buildings in Washington for the first time since the Civil War.
Flippant comparisons of that horrifying debacle to the serious but scarcely equivalent problems of 2008–9 are, to say the least, unrigorous. In Roosevelt’s first four years, his programs reduced unemployment from approximately 14 million to about eight million in a labor force that had grown by two million. Nearly 70 percent of the unemployed were engaged in workfare projects building what would today be called infrastructure. And the remaining unemployed, about 2.4 million people, received unemployment insurance from the Social Security system Roosevelt established, on a two-payer basis, so future reactionary regimes would not be able to abolish it, and it would not become an open artery like America’s current health-care system.
In his first term, Roosevelt also completed the repeal of Prohibition, the country’s most unrelievedly bad legislative initiative until the War on Drugs; successfully restructured the banking system, including the guarantee of bank deposits; refinanced 4.5 million residential mortgages; instituted a farmer-approved plan of agricultural-production rollbacks to ensure an ample food supply at sustainable farm-income levels; shortened the work week; raised wages; and made great progress in flood and drought control and rural electrification. Farm income quadrupled in four years, and corporate America, which had lost $2 billion in 1933, recorded profits of $5 billion in 1936. Detroit had twice as many employed people in 1934 as in 1932. In 1936, the New York Times Business Index regained the 100 mark that it had pierced in free fall in early 1930, and in June 1936, a Fortune magazine poll showed that 53 percent of Americans thought the Depression was over. All polls showed the president’s approval rating above 60 percent, which is where he came in on Election Day (about 61.5), in one of the greatest landslides in American history.
Daniel Henninger knows better than to compare that record and that result to the current Obama flimflam campaign. What we are seeing, and the April 3 speech was indicative of it, is a cataract of evasions and pretensions, such as that the $800 billion stimulus program wasn’t a total failure; that cap-and-trade is defensible policy; that Bush’s economic leavings were much worse than they really were; and that the Republican party, the Supreme Court, and the Roman Catholic Church are holding hands in a Bronze Age conspiracy to impose acceptance that the earth is flat, that women are chattels passively devoted to being breeding stock, and that the administration’s health-care reforms are as misdirected, extravagant, and objectively bad as most Americans spontaneously think they are.
The particular Roosevelt speech Mr. Henninger mentioned was not a campaign kickoff, but a wind-up, four days before the election, and its point was the opposite of the one he makes. FDR went through his usual bunk about “monopolists, war profiteers, class antagonists,” and so forth, but not to generate the abrasions Obama is now preying on. If Roosevelt had once publicly said, “The Rockefellers and Morgans will pay for the misery their greed has caused,” mobs would have burned down their houses. By collecting public anger and frustration in the Depression in the cul-de-sacs of nonexistent and nameless groups (how were Americans profiting from wars in 1936 — by selling arrows to Ethiopia?), FDR conserved the moral cohesion of the country to focus alarm on the nation’s real enemies, Nazi Germany and imperialist Japan. Mr. Obama is simply being flagrantly divisive in a philosophical framework that is, as Pope Benedict said recently, “militant secularism.”
Roosevelt did not attack his opponent or the Republican party at all in the speech cited, and concluded by stating that “above our political arena stand the altars of our faiths.” The speeches compared are in stark contrast.
While I’m at it, I would like to get another point connected to Mr. Henninger’s column off my chest. The majority of Roosevelt historians, even very positive ones such as the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Doris Kearns Goodwin, feed the Henninger heresy about intractable American unemployment compared with other advanced industrial economies in the Thirties. Germany, Britain, France, Japan, and Italy appeared to have better unemployment figures than the U.S. only because, from the early or mid-Thirties on, they all drafted or otherwise induced ever-growing numbers of people into the armed forces and the defense-production industries.
The New Deal workfare programs were based on Roosevelt’s refusal to let the unemployed starve, be reduced to violence, or be paid for being idle. (There were special programs for the handicapped and even the mentally ill.) These temporary government workers built or expanded 2,500 hospitals, 4,000 schools, 13,000 parks and playgrounds, 7,800 bridges, hundreds of sewage plants and airfields, vast hydroelectric facilities (including the TVA and the Grand Coulee, Bonneville, and Hoover Dams), and such diverse projects as the Triborough Bridge, Lincoln Tunnel, the Florida Keys elevated highway, the splendid Chicago waterfront, and the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh. They also stocked millions of fish, planted millions of trees, taught 1.5 million people how to read, saved the whooping crane, and built the heroic and historic aircraft carriers Enterprise and Yorktown. It was all at very low cost to the country, and it was hard work. These people were just as, and much more usefully, employed as the armed forces and munitions workers of Europe and Japan, and Roosevelt historians should join the distinguished Jean Edward Smith and me in this argument.
It must be said that Roosevelt was also imprudent about the dangers of inflation, though he was aware of them, and he misunderstood the positive and negative implications of income taxes, as most people did in the Thirties. Of course, the NRA with its codes and blue eagles and parades was just a morale-boosting publicity stunt, and FDR wasn’t inconsolable when the Supreme Court pitched it. But the 1938 “Roosevelt Recession” was nonsense, and none of these matters need to be discussed here. The main point to understand is this: The Obama campaign is less an emulation of Franklin D. Roosevelt than a parody of the contemporary “Share the Wealth” movement of Huey P. Long.