“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, March 4, 1933
To this end, he invented fireside radio chats. “My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking,” he began on March 12, 1933. He rebuilt trust between the governed and the governors. Roosevelt could close worthless banks, in part because he was ruthlessly honest about the outlook. “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment,” he said.
But his success was greater than simply reopening shuttered banks. Roosevelt won the gratitude of desperate Americans, which gave him the flexibility to try different remedies — many of which failed — for overcoming the Great Depression. Here is a telling letter to Roosevelt from Mildred Goldstein of Joliet, Ill., just after the first fireside chat:
“You are the first President to come into our homes; to make us feel you are working for us; to let us know what you are doing. Until last night, to me, the President of the United States was merely a legend. A picture to look at. A newspaper item. But you are real. I know your voice; what you are trying to do. Give radio credit. But to you goes the greater credit for your courage to use it as you have.”
(Note to history buffs: The Roosevelt background comes from “The Fireside Conversations: America Responds to FDR During the Great Depression” by Lawrence W. Levine and Cornelia R. Levine.)
I have dwelled at such length on FDR’s experience because it has relevance to our present effort to contain the coronavirus. President Trump’s job, like Roosevelt’s, is political. It was (and is) to create sufficient political trust to give government’s health-care professionals the time and the flexibility to discover how to assert control over the coronavirus.
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But instead of rising to the occasion, Trump has slumped. He has only belatedly — and apparently reluctantly — concluded that the virus can’t be fooled and that the effort to do so has made matters worse, not better. Initially, he played down the threat posed by the virus, and when that seemed contradicted by the facts, he sought to shift blame to former president Barack Obama.
Trump’s “truths” are all politically expedient, undermining confidence. As my colleague Catherine Rampell has correctly argued, once you acquire a reputation for distortion and falsehood, it follows you everywhere.
Meanwhile, state and local officials, as well as private-sector leaders, have stepped into the breach, closing schools, prohibiting large public gatherings (including sports events such as March Madness and professional basketball and hockey games) and, when possible, urging businesses to have their employees work from their homes.
The idea is to prevent or delay the disease’s advance by limiting its transmission through human contact. To the extent that this succeeds, it reduces the odds that a surge of sick patients will overwhelm the health-care system. Still, the economic damage is considerable. Stock markets around the globe have reeled as frightened traders and investors have rushed to sell.
Although the exact amounts have varied day by day, the global losses have, as of Thursday, totaled about $16 trillion, with nearly 60 percent of that attributable to the United States, and the rest split among other advanced societies (Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom) and developing countries (China, India, Brazil), according to analyst Howard Silverblatt of S&P Dow Jones Indices.
The large losses, coupled with all the closings, will almost certainly weaken the economy and may lead to a recession, which is usually defined as two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth. People stay home and don’t shop. Businesses lay off workers because demand has declined or supply chains are unreliable.
The contrast between Roosevelt and Trump contains a larger lesson, involving public trust. It must be earned, not simply assumed when it is convenient and ignored when it isn’t. Trump shows no signs of grasping that.
Read more from Robert Samuelson’s archive.
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