It has become a universally acknowledged truth in coverage of the 2012 presidential campaign, one repeated with increased fervor with each dismal jobs report, that no president has won reelection with an unemployment rate above 7.2 percent. But always there is the caveat: . . . since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936.
In the aftermath of Thursday night’s presidential address on jobs, that caveat should be more than an afterthought. FDR’s victory three-quarters of a century ago has important parallels to the situation in which President Obama finds himself and provides vital lessons if he is to be similarly successful.
While Roosevelt had been elected in 1932 during a period of economic collapse, four years later the economy was still struggling. Unemployment in 1936 was 16.6 percent. The moment of national unity that marked Roosevelt’s first hundred days had petered out, leaving behind a general dissatisfaction with large-scale, inefficient government bureaucracies and their stratospheric levels of federal spending and debt. Newspapers had coined the term “boondoggle” to describe the high-end dog shelters, city zoo monkey houses, safety pin studies and other New Deal projects that attempted to stimulate the economy. New entitlement programs such as Social Security had been passed, over strong opposition, but had yet to take effect.
While Obama might confront the propaganda machine of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, Roosevelt faced off against a relatively more powerful William Randolph Hearst and his newspaper empire. In 1936 two-thirds of Americans read newspapers, which were vociferously anti-New Deal. Today, the Tea Party and a network of organizations funded by the Koch family and others focus their attacks on Obama. In 1936, charges of creeping socialism and the savaging of the Constitution were launched by the Liberty League and its affiliated groups, funded by a flood of money from the du Pont family and major corporations.
And yet when Election Day arrived, Roosevelt won by a landslide of historic proportions.
The differences between Roosevelt’s era and Obama’s are too numerous to list. Nevertheless, Obama and his advisers have much to learn from Roosevelt’s triumph.
First, Roosevelt constantly underscored the contrast between his plan and his opponents’ fealty to the policies and ideas that, in the decade before his election, had led directly to the Great Depression.
Second, Roosevelt made clear to the American people where the battle lines had been drawn. After the first two years of his administration, in which he attempted to work in concert with the business community, Roosevelt shifted gears in the summer of 1935. He sought to pick a fight with the richest men in the country, moving to significantly raise their taxes in the Revenue Act of 1935. In terms of government operations, the legislation was ultimately insignificant — it produced an additional $250 million in federal accounts, the equivalent then of running the government for 10 days. But revenue was not the goal. “This is a hell raiser, not a revenue raiser,” as one congressman put it. Harper’s Magazine wrote in June 1936 that the tax hike caused “more resentment against the President than any other act of his administration.” Roosevelt did not shy away from that resentment from the wealthy elite. Indeed, when he asserted “I welcome their hatred” in the climactic speech of his 1936 campaign, it was because it worked to his political benefit.
Most important, in that summer of ’35, Roosevelt had the courage to rebuild his presidency almost from scratch. When the set of national planning programs that made up the first New Deal — in particular, the National Recovery Administration and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration — proved ineffective and ultimately were ruled unconstitutional, Roosevelt changed course. His second New Deal instead emphasized putting Americans to work in the Works Progress Administration, building up the strength of unions and expanding the safety net with Social Security.
The policies of 1935 do not necessarily fit the America of 2011, but there are instructive political and policy lessons in the crinkling newspapers and crackling radio broadcasts of that era. The choice Obama confronts is not the one repeated ad nauseam by pundits in recent weeks: “Go big” and double down on stimulus policies to make a political point, or “go small” and seek to pass tiny, ineffective tinkers. Rather, it is one that Roosevelt faced in a similar moment: Offer new ideas or more of the same. As Obama moves from Thursday’s speech to laying out an agenda for a second term, it is that decision that will define the rest of his presidency.
Andrei Cherny is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the president of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. He is the author of a forthcoming history of Franklin Roosevelt and his battle with big-business enemies of the New Deal.