President-elect Barack Obama steadily reiterates the vital importance of economic issues, this time through a major policy address Thursday at George Mason University. By contrast, he has largely deferred to the outgoing Bush administration on foreign policy and national security. The incoming administration is practicing diplomacy in generally not discussing policy outside of economics.
Economics, however, is unavoidable. Politicians, journalists and others now regularly refer to the current recession and financial instability as the greatest economic crisis "since the Great Depression". In effect, a Democratic theme of the hard-fought presidential campaign has become a media mantra.
Very much like Bill Clinton, Obama is comfortable and knowledgeable regarding policy specifics. His address included considerable detail about tax incentives for individuals and business, a vast new public works program, and the environment
Obama wants this ambitious package to get through Congress by the Presidents’ Day recess on February 13. That is a high hurdle, and in effect will constitute the first really major leadership test of new President Obama. Democrats are by nature activist and expansive; Congress is constitutionally deliberative, divided – and usually slow.
Since World War II, Democratic Presidents have generally been frustrated by legislative logjams. This was true of Presidents Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. Lyndon B. Johnson was a major exception, reflecting his extraordinary legislative prowess, national grief following the assassination of JFK, and the big Democratic majorities elected in 1964. LBJ’s national security adviser McGeorge Bundy once described with awe how Great Society legislation seemed to roll through Congress at the rate of "one freight train per minute." The other exception is Bill Clinton, whose Congressional track record was notably impressive until impeachment intervened.
There are other possible pitfalls for the new president, including excessive political pandering. Every change in administration that also includes a change in party provides irresistible incentives to blame everything that has gone wrong — and various potential problems still on the horizon — on the departing crew. Obama is doing that now, implicitly as well as explicitly.
In that context, the example of Ronald Reagan is instructive. In 1966, he was elected governor of California by a landslide. Reagan had emphasized tax cuts, but government reality required higher taxes, no matter who won the election. The new governor-elect made a particularly passionate speech declaring outgoing Democrats had "looted and drained" the state.
Even in theatrical California, that was too much, and Reagan was forced publicly to backtrack. In the White House, a savvier Reagan demonstrated great talent in working with Congressional Democrats, in particular House Speaker Tip O’Neill, while holding the loyalty of the Republican right.
The Democratic danger today is exaggeration of our problems through constant comparison with the Great Depression. When the Democratic National Convention met in Chicago in 1932, unemployed men crowded intersections. The City of Chicago was literally broke; teachers had not been paid for six months. Unemployment in the U.S. reached 25 percent.
FDR accepted his party’s nomination by emphasizing their generation had "a rendezvous with destiny." His 1933 inaugural addressed resonated that the only thing Americans had to fear was "fear itself".
Roosevelt led a terribly afflicted nation, and generally succeeded with Congress, through inspired — and inspiring — affirmative leadership. Let’s hope Obama does the same, in what remain much more prosperous times. His past emphasis on bipartisanship will be put to good use — and tested.
(Arthur Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)