This just in: I’ve obtained a secret military report to the president musing that if only Iran could enjoy a “government based upon the consent of the governed and of a system of free enterprise,” its people could achieve “the fulfillment of the principles of justice, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom from want, equality of opportunity, and to a degree, freedom from fear.” Unfortunately, State Department sources dismiss the report as so much “messianic global baloney.”
OK, wait a minute. I see the report was written in 1943 and was sent to President Roosevelt by Gen. Patrick Hurley. The complainer at State was the then-assistant secretary, Dean Acheson. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Historical analogies are always imperfect, but one cannot help but be impressed by the degree to which the challenges and opportunities facing the Obama administration mirror those initially facing FDR. David Woolner of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute noted the validity of the comparison at a conference I recently attended in Hyde Park. “Both leaders have had to cope with an unprecedented global financial crisis, a deteriorating economy, high unemployment and an electorate steeped in fear and apprehension about the future. Both men have also had to contend with a worldwide security crisis, inspired in FDR’s case by the pernicious ideology of fascism and in President Obama’s by the rise of a deadly form of international terrorism.”
Time also devoted its Independence Day cover package to the FDR/BHO analogy. Much of it is worthwhile–but being Time, quite a bit is misleading, particularly Amity Shlaes’s all but incoherent attack on the New Deal–and leaves the overall impression that FDR faced a more intense crisis than Obama, to which he responded with way more audacity. As Adam Cohen notes, when FDR was inaugurated on March 4, 1933, all forty-eight states had ordered their banks closed. Within days, the administration had pushed its Emergency Banking Act through the House, although no finished copies of the legislation existed. Overseas, storm clouds were gathering over Berlin, Rome and Tokyo posing dangers to Western civilization that dwarfed anything we face today.
FDR’s record was obviously a mixed one. Much of what he did failed, and his administration did not succeed in ending the Great Depression. What it did succeed in doing, as historian David Kennedy points out, was to lay the groundwork for the decades of prosperity that followed World War II. Kennedy writes, “All the major New Deal reforms that endured had a common purpose…to temper for generations thereafter what F.D.R. called the ‘hazards and vicissitudes’ of life. By creating the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the New Deal provided more confidence to bank depositors. With the Securities and Exchange Commission, it guaranteed more reliable information for investors. The Federal Housing Administration gave more protection to mortgage lenders and thus more options to home buyers. The National Labor Relations Board brought more stability to dealings between capital and labor. The Fair Labor Standards Act ensured more predictable wages for the most vulnerable workers. And Social Security offered at least a minimal safety net for both the unemployed and the elderly.”