Polls have consistently shown that far more Americans still blame George W. Bush for the country’s economic difficulties than those who were prepared to place responsibility on the man who has been president for the last few years. That fact, along with an economy that wasn’t very good but still not as terrible as many thought it might be, was enough to re-elect Barack Obama earlier this month. In doing so, Obama became the first president to successfully run for a second term, while blaming his predecessor for his own failures, since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who buried Alf Landon in 1936 by running against his predecessor Herbert Hoover.
That was quite a trick, but President Obama should be wary of emulating FDR in every respect. As Amity Shlaes wrote yesterday in Bloomberg News, Roosevelt’s second term provides some ominous precedents for an Obama second term. As our colleague John Steele Gordon wrote earlier this year, it may always be 1936 for liberals who believe conservatives are doomed to perpetual defeat. But what the president and his supporters should be worrying about is whether 2013 turns out to be a repeat of 1937, when a country mired in the Great Depression suffered another economic setback that heightened the country’s misery. As Shlaes points out, signs abound that the “Great Recession” that Obama claimed to save the country from during the campaign may be about to get worse.
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.
During remarks in Portland, Maine, on Friday, President Obama said, “We won’t win the race for new jobs and new businesses and middle-class security if we cling to this same old, worn-out, tired ‘you’re on your own’ economics that the other side is peddling. It was tried in the decades before the Great Depression. It didn’t work then. It was tried in the last decade. It didn’t work. You know, the idea you would keep on doing the same thing over and over again, even though it’s been proven not to work. That’s a sign of madness.”
You might think that a man who is on track to have the worst jobs record of any president in the modern era and is presiding over the weakest economic recovery since the Great Depression — not to mention the first credit rating downgrade in American history, the longest stretch of high unemployment since the Great Depression, chronic unemployment that is worse than the Great Depression, a housing crisis that is worse than the Great Depression, a standard of living for Americans that has fallen further and more steeply than at any time since the government began recording it five decades ago, and a record increase in the number of people who are in poverty — would be a little more careful when it came to lecturing the rest of us when it comes to what works in economics.
You might even say it was a sign of madness.
In my critique of President Obama’s 17-minute campaign documentary, “The Road We’ve Traveled,” I took issue with the claim, now taken as a truism by Obama supporters, that he inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression.
I argued that the economy Ronald Reagan inherited was sicker, and I want to elaborate on that assertion.