As we noted yesterday and earlier today, President Obama’s attempt to make the election a referendum on George W. Bush is a rather slender reed to use as the foundation for his re-election campaign. As expected, the president’s speech in Ohio today on the economy pushed the idea that the choice this year was between his policies and those of the preceding decade, for which he blamed all of the nation’s problems. Obama’s call for a “reset” may have satisfied panicked liberals who want him to be nastier about his opponents. In a nearly hour-long rant, the president sought to refute criticisms of his administration as being too dependent on government intervention to save the economy, but at the same time claimed the way forward was to spend a lot more on public sector jobs. Predictably, he also threw in a red herring about Mitt Romney ending Medicare without reference to any ideas of his own about reforming the entitlement spending that is dragging the country into insolvency.
But the attacks on Romney and his personal wealth and branding Republicans in Congress as heartless wretches who want to throw grandma under the bus is still secondary to persuading the nation that even though he has been president for three and a half years, he should be held blameless for a bad economy. Gaining re-election by avoiding discussion of his failures and focusing solely on those of his predecessor is a difficult task, but it is not impossible. Franklin D. Roosevelt did exactly that in 1936 when, despite the fact that his policies hadn’t been enough to pull the country out of the Great Depression, the overwhelming majority of Americans were still prepared to blame Herbert Hoover for their woes. But this notable precedent shouldn’t provide much reassurance for Democrats who worry about the prospects of a president who thinks a troubled private sector is doing “just fine” and (as he showed again today) has no new ideas to present about the economy.
It’s not hard to see why FDR managed to beat Hoover twice, although the “Great Engineer” was not on the ballot in 1936. The suffering caused by the Great Depression was on a scale that is almost unimaginable to us today. Under the circumstances, a Roosevelt plea for more time seemed reasonable. Moreover, even after four years of the New Deal, Republicans still seem to own the country’s problems. Hoover was wrongly blasted at the time as a do-nothing though his ill-advised interventions in the crisis did more harm than good. But because the collapse occurred in his first year in office (1929), his identification with the Depression was so thorough that it would be another decade (which would include a World War that would finally end the Depression) before Republicans would be able to shake off Hoover’s taint.
But FDR’s ability to go to the people in 1936 without being held accountable for the continuance of the disaster on his watch wasn’t simply a matter of blaming the GOP. It was just as much due to the way he persuaded the country that he knew the way forward and that their only hope was to trust in him. We can look back now dispassionately and understand, as Amity Shlaes wrote in her classic history of the Depression, The Forgotten Man, that the New Deal failed in large measure to heal the economy. In fact, Roosevelt’s policies could fairly be blamed for the severe downturn in his second term that mired the country even deeper in the ditch from which it was extricated by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But Roosevelt’s leadership skills were such that he gave Americans the impression things would get better. As Jonah Goldberg has rightly pointed out, some of the ideas of the New Deal had more in common with fascism than democracy, but it could not be said in 1936 that FDR was going back to the people without any new proposals or by merely castigating Hoover.
Things are thankfully not nearly so bad today, but the contrast between FDR’s ability to galvanize the nation with the 44th president’s lackluster appeals for support could not be greater. Having been swept into office as much by the Wall Street collapse that occurred in the fall of 2008 as by the “hope and change” mantra that focused on the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy, he hasn’t much to offer to solve the nation’s problems other than a deeply unpopular health care bill and a stimulus that few outside of the left would even think of repeating.
As history shows, the White House’s plan to shift blame for the economy to the president who left office four years ago is not unprecedented. But even if Americans could be persuaded that George W. Bush was another Hoover, getting them to believe that Obama is another FDR is a bridge too far even for the Democrats.