Saturday, January 31, 2009

Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself

"This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory."

Franklin D. Roosevelt
March 4, 1933

Franklin D. Roosevelt made many great speeches during his life, and the ones he made as president were his most famous.

It was part of his mission, as he saw it — to reassure, to comfort, to cajole. Hardly an anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor goes by without someone somewhere playing a recording of his famous "day of infamy" speech to Congress, which may be one of his more famous speeches.

He led America before the days of television, and his voice on the radio was soothing for many. Inspirational. It was a stark change from his predecessor, and it worked so well that it was a big reason why America elected him president four times.

Under existing law, it is no longer possible for a president to be elected four times. In fact, in large part, the law limiting presidents to two terms was passed by the opposition party because it didn't want to repeat the experience and find itself wandering in the wilderness for another two decades.

Ironically, in more than half a century since that law was passed, the presidents who were believed to be popular enough after eight years in office to win a third term have been members of that opposition party, not Roosevelt's party. Of course, only one president from Roosevelt's party (Bill Clinton) has been elected twice since FDR died.

When Roosevelt took office, the country was in the grip of the Great Depression. Some of have compared current conditions to the ones that existed when FDR first became president. Admittedly, today's economy is not as bad as it was in 1933, but each new economic report indicates that the conditions are worse than they've been since that time — and most people seem to think things will get even worse before they get better.

I don't know what Americans were hoping for when Roosevelt was elected president, but I assume they wanted a change. The Republicans had been in charge of the executive branch for a dozen years, and the incumbent was asking the voters to give him four more. But more than 57% of the voters voted for Roosevelt instead, and he carried 42 of 48 states.

Barack Obama's mandate was not as sweeping as Roosevelt's — nor was he running against the incumbent — but the message the voters delivered — while adding to the Democrats' majorities in the House and Senate — was that they weren't happy with the direction the country was taking, and, like that generation three-quarters of a century earlier, they wanted change.

If George W. Bush had been on the ballot, my guess is he would not have fared any better than the actual Republican nominee did. In fact, he might even have done worse.

Obama hasn't been in office for two full weeks yet, but his popularity ratings have been the polar opposite of his predecessor's. In his last year in office, the occasions when Bush's approval ratings reached 30% or better meant it was time to uncork the champagne bottles — but such occasions became fewer and farther between the deeper we got into 2008. And when he left office, the vast majority of respondents said they would not miss him when he was gone.

In stark contrast, Obama's approval rating in his first three days on the job was 68%.

Poll results are nothing more than snapshots of public opinion. They only measure — and not with 100% precision — how people feel at a given moment in time. The public's mood can shift quickly — and sometimes for the most unlikely reasons. I suppose that is why Terence Samuel suggests, in The American Prospect, that the new president "should hire himself an expectations czar and immediately elevate the person to a Cabinet-level position."

Making it a Cabinet-level position probably isn't feasible, but I'm inclined to believe that Samuel might be on to something there. Even with the public's high expectations and the jubilant mood on the day of his inauguration, Obama did not get a single Republican in the House to vote for the economic stimulus plan this week, and he even lost 11 Democrats.

He didn't need them, of course. The Democrats had more than enough votes to give Obama a victory in the House. But he failed to get even a modest bipartisan victory.

In that sense, nothing has changed. Obama spoke frequently before and after the election about his desire for a bipartisan approach, for the abandonment of politics as usual. But — in the House at least — it was still a political victory, the majority party vs. the minority party, Democrat vs. Republican, left vs. right. It was no different, really, than when the Republicans controlled the White House and the Congress. All that's changed is which party is in charge.

Until this country gets the sense that everyone in the federal government is working together for the common good, there will be no lasting belief that it's no longer politics as usual. But there's some residual confidence in Obama that the new president should capitalize on now.

"[C]onfidence in Barack Obama is all that is standing between us and a complete collapse into economic and emotional depression," Samuel writes. And he is correct about that.

The assessments of things are certainly dire, as Samuel observes. Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii estimates that we're losing 20,000 jobs a day, and he predicts that job losses for January will be 600,000 — if not more. And the only reason why Americans do not believe that a complete collapse is imminent, Samuel writes, is "[b]ecause people think Obama can fix it."

Consumer confidence is lower than it's been in more than four decades. Consumer spending is drying up. Dissatisfaction with the state of things is rampant, yet, as Samuel points out, "Obama's approval rating is at historic highs."

Obama hasn't been in office long, and Samuel concedes that "after a week, there is not much on which to judge him. But whatever it is he's got going, he's got to keep it up."

Samuel says Obama has to keep expectations high, and he's right. But Obama can't do it alone. For that reason, it's a good thing that he's having more than a dozen members of Congress over for a Super Bowl party tomorrow night. When the Senate takes up the debate on the stimulus package, he has to have some Republicans enlisted in the cause.

The best way to keep expectations high is to give the impression that he's trying to work with everyone. Obama probably can claim another political victory in the Senate with only Democratic votes, but he needs some Republican votes to give confidence a boost. Over and over during the general election campaign, voters kept saying they were tired of politics as usual.

But the more they get the sense that politics as usual still prevails, the faster the "Obama bubble" is going to burst.

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