People, not least himself, have often compared Barack Obama to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
You know the narrative. He came to office in a financial crisis and proceeded to take government action to revive the economy and expand government to help the little guy.
That narrative was developed by great New Deal historians like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and has been an article of faith among liberal Democrats ever since. Expand government, and the people will love you.
Except that it hasn’t worked out exactly that way. Most Americans don’t much love the stimulus package or Obamacare. That’s why you didn’t hear much about them at the Democratic National Convention.
The economy has not responded as Obama’s economists predicted, to say the least. Job growth has been sluggish, investment even more so, and inflation may be starting to rear its ugly head.
Obama’s term does resemble Roosevelt’s — but his second term in office, not the first.
If you look at the unemployment numbers for FDR’s first term, you can see why his party (unlike Obama’s Democrats) gained seats in the off-year election and why the president was resoundingly re-elected in 1936.
The unemployment percentages for successive years, rounded off, were 25 percent, 22 percent, 20 percent, 17 percent. Awfully high, but steady and heartening progress.
The numbers for the second Roosevelt term were not so nice. Rounded off they were 14 percent, 19 percent, 17 percent, 15 percent — higher at the end than after the first year, with a spike in between. More like Obama’s numbers than like the first Roosevelt term.
The second Roosevelt term was so dismal that many New Deal historians glossed over it or avoided it altogether.
Schlesinger’s first three volumes of “The Age of Roosevelt” were bestsellers. The third, running up to the 1936 election, was published in 1960. Schlesinger lived another 47 years, active to the end. In that time, he wrote numerous books and probably millions of words of beautiful prose.
But he never got around to Roosevelt’s second term. The reason, I suspect, is that he found the subject depressing, at least up until 1940, when Roosevelt rallied to aid Winston Churchill’s Britain at a time of world crisis.
Why did Roosevelt’s second term turn out so poorly? Basically, because his policies were so unpopular. His 1935 labor act led to violent sitdown strikes in auto, steel and rubber factories, in which union victories were resented by the wider public.
His high tax rates on high earners — the great white whale of the Ahab-like Obama — plus something called the excess profits tax and the threat of onerous new regulation discouraged business investment, leading to what some called a capital strike.
In that setting many liberals, as historian Alan Brinkley writes, “reached the pessimistic conclusion that stagnation had become the normal condition of modern industrial economies.” Sounds like Bill Clinton’s argument: No one could do better.
Republicans gained 80 House seats in the 1938 off-year elections. A conservative coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats dominated Congress for most of the next 20 years.
Polling in the run-up to the 1940 election showed Roosevelt and the Democratic Party in nothing like the dominant position they held in his first term. Gallup polls showed that most voters wanted a Republican as the next president.
Of course, we know that Roosevelt won a third term and then a fourth after that. The New Deal historians have taken that as evidence that Americans loved his big government policies.
But Roosevelt won in 1940 and 1944 on foreign affairs and as a war leader. The outbreak of World War II in September 1939 overshadowed economic complaints.
In June 1940, Hitler overran France. With his then-ally Josef Stalin, he threatened to take over most of the landmass of Eurasia. We were as close as the world has ever gotten to George Orwell’s “1984.”
That crisis gave Roosevelt an enormous electoral advantage. Republicans’ presidential hopefuls had no foreign policy credentials. Thomas Dewey was a 38-year-old district attorney, Robert Taft a second-year senator, Wendell Willkie — the surprise nominee — a utilities executive.
Democratic alternatives to Roosevelt were just as weak: a salty Texas vice president, a former campaign manager, an outgoing governor of Indiana. Roosevelt finagled his renomination in July 1940 and won a decisive victory in November.
Roosevelt and his party were rescued from his second term record by a world crisis. It’s not clear what will rescue Obama’s candidacy.