In reality, Obama didn’t enter office at the right time to be FDR or Hoover. FDR was inaugurated in 1933 — more than three years into the Great Depression. The year before he took office, the country’s economy contracted by more than 13 percent and unemployment reached 23.6 percent. The suffering was pinned on his predecessor, and it had gone on long enough that a boom was in the offing — a boom that came, right on schedule, in 1934, when the economy grew by more than 10 percent. No wonder FDR was grinning.
Obama, by contrast, entered office as the crisis was peaking. The worst period of the crisis would prove to be the fourth quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009, which mostly passed before Obama assumed the presidency, but which only showed up in the unemployment numbers months later. By the end of 2009, the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve had the economy growing again. But the damage done in 2008 and early 2009, which shot unemployment to 10 percent, nevertheless manifested on his watch.
So the administration is betwixt and between: According to an August Associated Press poll, a majority of Americans still blame George W. Bush for the economic crisis. So Obama isn’t Hoover. But according to every poll conducted in recent months, a majority of Americans don’t think Obama has turned this thing around, so he’s not FDR, either. The next president, however, might be.
The pat story behind FDR’s victory and the ensuing decades of mostly Democratic dominance is that the president got the policy right and the politics followed. Whatever you believe about FDR’s policies, a more international perspective will disabuse you of the notion that the golden age for the Democratic Party was an ideological triumph rather than an accident of history. As Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, has written, globally, the pattern is clear: Whichever party was in power when the Great Depression hit was booted out of office, and whichever party was in power when the global recovery took hold reaped huge political benefits.
“In the U.S.,” wrote Bartels, “voters replaced Republicans with Democrats and the economy improved. In Britain and Australia, voters replaced Labor governments with conservatives and the economy improved. In Sweden, voters replaced Conservatives with Liberals, then with Social Democrats, and the economy improved.