President Obama can probably recite this line in his sleep. Be bold, and rip a page from Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal playbook: institute Works Project Administration and Civilian Conservation Corp.-type programs. They would put tens of thousands of jobless people back to work, pump up consumer spending, stave off a deeper recession, and trump the GOP mantra that only private industry can create jobs and boost the economy. It's a good line, and if 1933 America could be reprised again, putting government directly in the business of job creation would not only work, but be a necessity.
This isn't 1933. And President Obama can't make like FDR for several compelling reasons. The nation was flat on its back. One in three Americans were unemployed. The stock market, the banks and major industry had collapsed. The GOP was ridiculed and discredited. The labor movement was on the ascendancy, the until then small and totally marginalized Communist Party was getting a hearing from more and more down and out unemployed workers. The major financiers and industrialists genuinely feared social upheaval, even revolution. The horror of creating deficits by government spending and a drumbeat media echo chamber to turn the airwaves, (there were no TV networks), into a electronic bully pulpit to badger, hector, harangue and pillory FDR at every turn for spending too much didn't exist. There was an actual government surplus then, and no major debt.
FDR in effect had carte blanche to do something and do something drastic and fast. The dizzying array of alphabet New Deal programs government job creation programs were applauded by a majority of Americans, and effectively dampened the simmering sparks of rebellion.
President Obama has none of the luxuries FDR had and all of the liabilities that FDR did not have. One need not speculate about the wrath that he'd incur from millions who passionately believe that he's a closet socialist and his economic policies have doused the private sector if he advocated government job programs. The reaction to the stimulus package stirred hysteria among most GOP leaders, officials, voters and a significant number of conservative and even moderate independents. They railed at it as naked big government expansion, and reckless spending by a liberal Democratic president. The public vilification, political opposition, and conservative media pounding that Obama would take if he tried the FDR approach to jobs would be titanic.
The valid fiscal and economic argument that government job creation will put dollars in more consumers pockets, boost consumer spending, jump-start small and medium sized business hiring, and increase business and personal income tax revenues would be drowned out in the harangue that a WPA style program would be too expensive and too wasteful. Even if Obama was willing to risk the firestorm of protest, and thumb his nose at the GOP, there's little chance that he'd get even a handful of Senate Democrats to back a government job creation program.
Let's turn back the clock again to the 1930s to get a better picture of what Obama would face if he tried to make like FDR and create government jobs. FDR won a landslide reelection in 1936. But two years later in the 1938 midterm elections, a resurgent GOP dumped dozens of Democrats from the Senate and the House. The issue that the GOP latched onto to ramp up their numbers is pretty much the same issue the GOP uses to sledgehammer Obama, and that's his alleged failures on the economy.
The economy had taken another nose dive after 1936, and unemployment crept up higher from its still double digit numbers. The GOP played hard on the feeling that the New Deal wasn't working. That it had run out of steam and that the real answer to the nation's economic crisis was to turn things back over to big business and let it run the economic ship without the Roosevelt and New Deal governmental restraints, agencies, tampering and meddling.
Roosevelt ignored the administration baiters and moved left. In a fireside chat, FDR talked bluntly with the American people immediately after the 1938 election and made it clear he would not reverse course and that he'd do everything he could to "create an economic upturn" by keeping the government firmly in the business of creating jobs and economic security for the millions still suffering from the Depression. He could do that and make it work because he still had the broad support of by now a powerful union movement and his intact electoral coalition of farmers, urban ethnics, and African-American voters behind him.
In 2010 the GOP took the House and a good chunk of the Senate back and it promptly followed the 1938 script with FDR. It claimed the near sweep was a total rejection of the Obama administration's program on health care, financial reform, and stimulus spending, and claim that Americans loudly clamor for a return to fiscal conservatism, permanent tax cuts for the super rich, and a dash backward on expanding government programs in education, housing, and highway and urban infrastructure construction and reconstruction.
Obama had no choice but to read the political tea leaves and conclude that though job creation was the real need of Americans and the only real way to ignite and stimulate a floundering economy, there was no political possibility to get even a tepid version of FDR's WPA program in place. The clamor for Obama to make like FDR ignores that this is 2011 not 1933. To think that Obama can make like FDR in these times is fantasy.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on KTYM Radio Los Angeles streamed on ktym.com podcast on blogtalkradio.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com
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