Is Obama FDR or Hoover? Or neither?
I think the strongest objection to my earlier post is that, well, wasn't Barack Obama supposed to be FDR? A Democrat elected amid an economic collapse who presides over a roaring recovery and reshapes American politics in his image? Daniel Foster and Jonah Goldberg both make variants of this argument, and Goldberg even takes it a bit further:
One possible irony is that, as Megan McArdle has argued, 2008 may not have been 1932, it may have been 1929. In which case, Obama is Hoover. Now, I am one of those libertarian-infected conservatives who argues that Hoover wasn’t the free-market guy the Left has always said he was. But without even wading into all of that, the analogy must be dismaying to liberals. Because, fair or not, Hoover discredited free-market economics for a generation (or at least he was perceived to have done so). It would be a biting irony if Obama did the same thing to his statist brand of economics.
I think this is right on. But Goldberg should have gone one step further and actually checked the numbers. In 1932, the year FDR was elected, GDP fell by 13.1 percent. That's horrifying. In 1934, the year FDR bucked the historical trend and led his party to an eight-seat gain in his first midterm election, GDP expanded by 10.9 percent.
By contrast, in 2008, the year Obama was elected, GDP didn't change at all. Seriously: The Bureau of Economic Analysis says it was 0.0 percent. That's bad, but not Hoover bad. We don't have annual numbers for 2010 yet, but annualized GDP growth was 3.7 percent in the first quarter and 2.4 percent in the second quarter. Growth seems to be slowing a bit lately, so let's assume that 2010 growth is closer to 2 percent than to 3 percent. That's better than a 13 percent contraction, but it's a whole lot worse than a 10 percent expansion.
Which is all to say, the FDR example fits the theory quite well. Goldberg is arguing with me, but I think his post actually implies agreement: The real condition of the economy is the central ingredient in the president's political success. And if Goldberg had looked into the GDP tables, he would have seen that the economy isn't making Obama into FDR or into Hoover.
Now, that leaves us with a different question: How much more could Obama have done to accelerate the recovery? Foster accuses me of ignoring that variable, but that's actually been the central theme of this blog (and of my columns) for the past few months. To repeat, insofar as Obama could've done more to improve the economy, he would be in better shape today.
My view? I think the government could've done much more, but I'm not sure Obama could've gotten much more from Congress. Either way, what I don't think makes sense is what the political strategists told Matt Bai: "That it all comes down to messaging." I'd say something more like "it all comes down to the size and effectiveness of the stimulus against the size of the economic downturn." And the stimulus was too small, and the recession was much worse than we initially realized. Given those two factors, I don't think you need to reach for explanations for the current political situation.
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