Delayed Inaugural Reactions

I attended the inaugural, and I’m glad that I did. It was expertly organized, and any conservatives who hope someday to have another president in office should hope that crowds are greeted on the mall for that future inaugural by such fantastic volunteers as we met on Tuesday. One offered my three-year-old daughter her hand warmers, which makes up for a couple of tax hikes in my book. The process itself was moving in all the expected ways. I thought the piece of classical music was the ceremonial highlight.

The crowd was excited and positive. The poor reaction to President Bush was classless (and, as should be obvious to any fourth-grader, counter-productive), but seemed to me to be mostly evidence of high spirits and crowd dynamics. My boisterous cheering for George H.W. Bush was met with friendly amusement by those around me.

To get to the main event, most observers seem to be straining to find greatness or disaster in Obama’s address, but I thought it was middle-of-the-road. It struck me as well-written and well-delivered. The closing seemed particularly fine. Like most such addresses, it avoided clarity in search of unity. It was like poetry, in that it served to articulate emotional truths, but had highly ambiguous practical implications.

Obama’s coming to power now is often compared to that of FDR in 1933. In this light, it is striking to read FDR’s brilliant first inaugural address and compare it to Obama’s. FDR in this speech was not ambiguous. The famous “nothing to fear but fear itself” line sounds like it’s the peroration, but it’s actually almost the first sentence after the opening pleasantries. The he gets right to business describing what he believes to be the key problems facing the country with specificity:

Values have shrunk to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; and the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone. More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.

Obama lays out the problem is very similar, if far more muted terms, terms:

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

Obama here identifies the causes of these problems in only the most abstract and partial terms – “a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”

Compare this to FDR, who brings the lumber on the cause of the crisis:

Primarily, this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

True, they have tried. But their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

Obama’s call for “action, bold and swift” is a list of good things we want:

…not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.

In contrast, FDR, because he has articulated a specific theory for the cause of the crisis, is very specific about some fairly controversial policies:

Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing great — greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our great natural resources.

Hand in hand with that we must frankly recognize the overbalance of population in our industrial centers and, by engaging on a national scale in a redistribution, endeavor to provide a better use of the land for those best fitted for the land.

Yes, the task can be helped by definite efforts to raise the values of agricultural products, and with this the power to purchase the output of our cities. It can be helped by preventing realistically the tragedy of the growing loss through foreclosure of our small homes and our farms. It can be helped by insistence that the Federal, the State, and the local governments act forthwith on the demand that their cost be drastically reduced. It can be helped by the unifying of relief activities which today are often scattered, uneconomical, unequal. It can be helped by national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and of communications and other utilities that have a definitely public character. There are many ways in which it can be helped, but it can never be helped by merely talking about it.

We must act. We must act quickly.

And finally, in our progress towards a resumption of work, we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order. There must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments. There must be an end to speculation with other people’s money. And there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.

These, my friends, are the lines of attack. I shall presently urge upon a new Congress in special session detailed measures for their fulfillment, and I shall seek the immediate assistance of the 48 States.

This might be hubristic, and much of it was probably misguided, but it was not ambiguous.

FDR doesn’t just say the words “hard choices will need to be made” – he makes them. This is the opposite of the soaring, simplistically unifying rhetoric that we’re told should (and usually does) characterize inaugural addresses.

Doing this requires a specific kind of courage. Is Barack Obama’s failure to do it evidence of a failure of nerve? I don’t know, but I think it’s more plausible that it is evidence of political shrewdness.

I think that the analogy between 2009 and 1933 is very imperfect. The stock market crash occurred in October, 1929, and by March, 1933 there had been more than three years of Republican mismanagement that had created terrible economic conditions. Unemployment for 1932 was over 20%, and GDP had declined 25% since 1929. More than 4,000 banks failed, wiping out depositors in the days before the FDIC. The Great Depression, by far the most serious economic dislocation in American history, was already in full swing.

It would be as if McCain had won the 2008 election, presided over a full-scale collapse of the real economy, and then Obama had won in 2012. Republicans would have demonstrated that their economic policies could not address the crisis, and in fact, could reasonably be blamed for its severity. For FDR, this created incredible freedom of action.

The election of Obama would be closer to a presidential election occurring in 1930, and this is all the difference in the world. The actual transition of the financial crisis and current recession to an economic collapse, if it comes, will occur on Obama’s watch. Republicans will, at a minimum, not have demonstrated failure in dealing with it.

We can see this difference in the voting results. There has been a swing of support to Obama and his party, but it is not comparable to 1933. Here are the electoral maps for 1924, 1928, 1932 and 1936 (confusingly Red = Democrat and Blue = Republican):

The realignment from 1928 to 1932 was from almost total Republican dominance to almost total Democratic dominance.

Obama won by 7 points; FDR by 18. Obama’s talk of boldness, without actual bold proposals, is likely a reflection of his awareness of this hard fact. This is probably a reason that he is willing to yield so far on tax relief in the stimulus package, as an example. If a depression-level event unfolds over the next four years and he is seen as pushing an agenda in opposition to the other party, he will be vulnerable in a way that FDR was not almost no matter what happened.