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Finding His Inner FDR

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008; Page A27

Enough Lincoln. More FDR. This is my shorthand advice to Barack Obama, who in several interviews has talked about wanting to emulate Abraham Lincoln. He said that along with the Bible, the book he would take with him to a desert island would be Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals." It's a useful book -- but not if that desert island has high unemployment, a housing crisis, a frozen financial system and no consumer confidence. In that case, a book about Franklin D. Roosevelt would do better.

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There need not be a contest between these two great presidents, both of them remarkable politicians. But the one quality Roosevelt had that Lincoln, at least in his popular portrayal, did not is sheer exuberance. FDR, who called Al Smith a "happy warrior," was himself a happy warrior. It was his jaunty enthusiasm and his willingness to try almost anything to break the back of the Great Depression that mattered most. It had to -- after all, in the end, nothing worked.

The revisionist take on Roosevelt is contained in Amity Shlaes's book "The Forgotten Man." She argues that New Deal programs not only failed to lift the country out of the Depression, they made things worse. Shlaes has been criticized on this point, but her overall argument is beyond dispute: The New Deal did not end the Depression. World War II did.

Look at Shlaes's numbers. In 1923, the U.S. unemployment rate was 3.3 percent. By 1929, it was 5 percent; by 1933, deep into the Depression, it was 23.2. It then started to decline, but not consistently, and was still at 14.6 percent in 1940. To some, these numbers prove that Roosevelt did not end the Depression; to others, they prove that he was on his way. Whatever the case, the fight was a slog with still no end in sight when the Japanese effectively instituted a full employment act by bombing Pearl Harbor.

In his "60 Minutes" interview that aired Sunday, Obama paid homage to Roosevelt as well as Lincoln. The question, though, is not which president he most admires but which president he most resembles. If it is Lincoln, we have a problem. Lincoln had one overriding goal, and that was to reunite the Union. It was a massive undertaking, but he knew just how to do it: Find a commanding general who would fight and pour on the troops. This, he suggested in his second inaugural address, was going to be a bloody war that he would see through to the end.

Obama's challenge is much different. He faces an economic catastrophe not seen since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate is still a modest 6.5 percent -- a trifle by Depression standards -- but back then only about 10 percent of Americans owned stock. Now nearly 50 percent do, and 68 percent live in homes they own. They all have been severely hurt. These people may not necessarily be out of work but they are certainly out of optimism and, if they are about to retire, out of their minds with worry.

In the past week, I've spoken with a gaggle of experts, some of them in finance, some in real estate and some in just plain investments. I've interviewed media magnates, both foreign and domestic, an investment banker, a manufacturer, and a former banker. This is what I have to report: Economically, we're in a recession. Psychologically, we're in a depression. The reason: None of these experts knows what to do.

Oh, sure, most everyone thinks some sort of spending plan would be a good idea -- get to work on the infrastructure. Most of them think we've got to thaw the frozen credit system. Schemes come and schemes go, but the suddenness of the collapse -- last year, the head of Goldman Sachs earned $68.5 million; this year, about $68 million less -- has produced a severe loss of faith in what once seemed an economic system blessed by God himself. Something has gone wrong. But what?

The solution is out there . . . somewhere. But it will take time and trial to find it. Obama knows this. It was one of the things he mentioned on "60 Minutes." But what he might not appreciate is that among his many gifts, the one that might matter most is how close he can come to Rooseveltian enthusiasm -- that optimism, that capacity for empathy that made so many ordinary people love this rich man and stick with him. Lincoln, a sometimes melancholy and somber man, belongs, as Edwin M. Stanton said, "to the ages." Roosevelt belongs to ours.

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In my Nov. 11 column, I said that Al Gore had won an Oscar. He accepted the Oscar for "An Inconvenient Truth," which won for Best Documentary.

cohenr@washpost.com


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