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Apples, Oranges, and 100 Days

By now, comparisons between Barack Obama and Franklin Roosevelt have become as commonplace as hearing heedless pundits liken Iraq to Vietnam. Some have gone further, casting Bush as Herbert Hoover while others have gleefully piled on, spouting off about “Hooverites” and “laissez-faire capitalism” whenever they can and without really having any idea what they’re talking about.

Much like the facile equation of Iraq with Vietnam, the substitution of the credit crunch for the Great Depression is based on a few superficial similarities but breaks down under even cursory scrutiny. As with Iraq, however, the cheap comparisons have inspired people to look to past solutions for today’s problems.

Unfortunately, their prescriptions, based as they are on caricatures, have little to do with reality. In no case is this more true than with Franklin Roosevelt’s “first 100 days”, which many hoped Obama’s first 100 days in the Oval Office would be modeled on. In his review of the recently published Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America by Adam Cohen, Daniel Rothschild of the Global Prosperity Initiative ably deconstructs the fashionable inaccuracies regarding Hoover and FDR that have been gaining currency:

Hoover was not the Grinch that Cohen wants him to be; he believed in aid to the poor, preferring it to be raised and delivered through means as close to the recipient as practicable. (This was essentially the same position Roosevelt held as governor of New York.) More important, he was by no means a proponent of unfettered markets. An engineer by training, Hoover believed fully in the power of central planning and technocratic government to better society.


In a campaign address, he argued that the American economy “is no system of laissez faire” but rather “demands economic justice as well as political and social justice.” Hoover was complex, both as a man and as a president. Cohen’s caricaturization may advance his angel-replaces-devil storyline, but it ignores the similarities between FDR and his predecessor, in both their philosophies and their policies.

For the people who’re pimping the “Obama-as-FDR” meme and getting all spittle-flecked about “Hooverites”, however, the “Great Depression II” narrative is all too easy to cast as the story of hard-nosed and noble progressives struggling to undo the evils of feckless, greedy, and dishonorable conservatives (aided in no small measure by the behavior of the Republican Party over the last eight years). But one should not mistake ill-informed polemics as authentic historiography. Indeed, as Rothschild notes

… Cohen’s actual agenda probably has more to do with influencing the present than understanding the past. The book was timed to appear less than two weeks before Obama’s inauguration, and its jacket carries an alarmist blurb from the historian Blanche Wiesen Cook, progenitor of the Eleanor-Rooseveltas-lesbian theory: “At this critical moment, with our nation imperiled by the ‘starve the beast’ crowd, this book offers a hope for what is now again most needed: the restoration of democracy, and the restitution of New Deal agencies to promote dignity and security for all.”

They may yet get their way. After all, fiscal conservatism has been utterly discredited, right?

Welcome to the future.

  1. Vincent says:

    I think that might be a wiser way to spend taxpayer dollars than throwing trillions into “stimulus” plans.

  2. Timothy says:

    Vincent – Well, Keynes did famously propose burying money in landfills for the poor to dig up so they’d have something to do, so maybe not.

  3. Sakaki says:

    I don’t see Obama like FDR.

    In fact, I see Obama like Carter.

  4. Vincent says:

    I think even Keynes is spinning in his grave at this point.

  5. Timothy says:

    My motto for the next four years is a simple one: ZOMBIE KEYNES NEEDS BRAAAAAAAAAAAINS!

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