The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion America needs a new FDR. It’s not Trump.

President Trump speaks on June 5, 2019, in Portsmouth, England. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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A new campaign ad for President Trump argues that he is the man to bring America’s economy back. His track record, however, suggests he might not be able to do what’s needed most: help us conquer our fear.

Polls show that Americans are afraid to shop, travel and do other things needed to reflate the economy. A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, for example, found that two-thirds of Americans would feel uncomfortable shopping at a retail clothing store and more than three-quarters would be uncomfortable eating out at a restaurant. Another survey from Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape also shows that large numbers of Americans are reluctant to resume pre-pandemic habits. Roughly 60 percent of Americans say they would probably or definitely not fly in an airplane or go to a stadium concert, live sporting event or the movies, while a majority say they would probably or definitely not shop at a retail mall and a plurality say they would probably or definitely not eat out at a restaurant.

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The massive unemployment the country is experiencing is a direct result of the sudden collapse in demand for such activities. Loans from the Paycheck Protection Program or the Federal Reserve can support businesses for only so long. If customers do not return in large enough numbers, businesses will ultimately have to permanently shrink their workforce or close altogether. That would destroy any remaining hope for a quick, “V-shaped” recovery.

The history of the Great Depression provides examples of how presidents can succeed or fail at conquering fear. Republican Herbert Hoover was in office when the collapse started. He argued that the powers of the federal government to combat the depression were constitutionally limited. He convened business leaders and urged them to keep employment and wages high despite business conditions while also hiking tariffs to reduce competition from other countries for American consumer spending. By 1932, however, the continuing collapse meant that no amount of rhetoric could convince Americans that Hoover was the right man for the job. He lost his reelection bid in a historic landslide to New York Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Carlos Covarrubias had to close his practice when the coronavirus pandemic hit, but emotional and spiritual support remain a lifeline to anxious patients. (Video: Shane Alcock/The Washington Post)

FDR set the template for future leaders facing an economic crisis. His first inaugural address set the tone when he proclaimed that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He followed this up with dramatic and decisive action. His famous “Hundred Days” produced laws that revamped the American economy, providing unprecedented levels of federal support for the unemployed and control over American business. He also issued regular nationwide radio broadcasts to speak directly to the American people in their homes. These “fireside chats” reassured Americans that the crisis, although still present, was being managed prudently and with their interests at heart. Economists still debate whether FDR’s New Deal significantly helped the economy, but gradual and tangible improvement led to FDR’s smashing, record-setting reelection win.

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Trump has some strengths that he can draw on as he embarks on his own leadership voyage. He projects confidence about America and its future. His claims that he has “total authority” sparked legitimate pushback, but his instinct that Americans prefer leaders who act over those who plead their hands are tied is correct. Many Americans want to see a vigorous pursuit of national recovery accompanied by strong legislative and executive action.

But it’s unlikely DJT can become the next FDR, given Trump’s weaknesses. Roosevelt was despised by many Americans, a sentiment he said was “welcome,” but the hatred from his enemies pales in comparison to that felt toward Trump. Nearly half of the country already despised him before the pandemic, and Trump’s faltering performance so far has merely confirmed their beliefs. Trump also lacks FDR’s charm and rhetorical gifts. Trump’s tweeting could have been used as a modern-day fireside chat to jump over the heads of a hostile media to unite America; instead, his use of a novel media has only increased our divisions.

Trump also faces real constraints on what sort of actions he can undertake to simultaneously combat the virus while reflating the economy. FDR had a Democratic-controlled Congress all too happy to support its leader. Trump has a Democratic-controlled House eager to hinder him, while the filibuster gives the Democratic Senate minority the ability to hold up most serious legislation.

America needs a president who can help us conquer our fears and overcome our divisions. FDR was a New York aristocrat who made Americans feel great again. We shall see if the New York billionaire in the Oval Office can, against all expectations, do the same thing and thereby meet his “rendezvous with destiny.”

Read more:

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