We launched the Big Project Monday and amazingly little happened; it just kinda worked. Amazing and nice when that happens!! So while I’ve been sitting at my desk as a part of the Tiger Team, and doing nothing, I’ve been catching up on my blog reading.
And I notice a nice thread that I want to use to tie back to a point I made earlier about what Bush hasn’t done well.
The basic thread was “Why was FDR considered such a great President?” Over at Volokh, David Bernstein opens:
Something I’ve always wondered about, too. Why is Hoover infamous for presiding over four years of Depression, not terribly uncommon in American history, while Roosevelt is much-beloved for presiding over an unprecedented two more presidential terms of Depression, while much of the rest of the world economy was recovering [edit: at a faster pace]?
When David put it that way, I got pretty interested in the question, too. After all, everyone knows Roosevelt was popular, and that his popularity has been lasting. He even managed to show up on the conservative list of Greatest Figures of the Twentieth Century (though he made the list of the worst as well). So, shall we inquire?
The short answer, as it turns out, is that Bernstein has his history wrong. Take a glance over at the chart below, if you will. Turns out that while the economy didn’t re-obtain its pre-Hoover size until the war was under way, economic growth resumed almost immediately after FDR took office, and continued apace (at least looking at the annual figures, quarterlies may have more hiccups) pretty consistently throughout his time in office.
David replies with references to other economists who challenge the causes of economic growth during FDR’s presidency, and who suggest that a number of his fiscal and monetary policies actively contributed to the Depression.
I’ll suggest two things to these guys:
First, you’re overlooking one of the core reasons why FDR is so beloved – because he won the freaking war. FDR was not only a Depression president, he was also the WWII president.
Second, and strongest of all, you’re overlooking FDR’s great ability to sell the public on his strategy and policies. Great leaders create faith and hope. In truth, those are probably more important than the exact policies they establish (although those obviously have significant impacts) because faith and hope are what drive people to make positive, future-oriented decisions, and to stick it out through the tough times.
From what I’ve read (and obviously it’s not everything, nor is it as good as having actually been there) FDR managed to do a hella good job of selling both his policies and the war.
People were left feeling like there was a corner that we might turn, and that it was worth it to keep going to get there.
So now we move to another issue: Did he always tell the truth??
Pretty obviously not. He ‘sold’ his policies, as most leaders do, with some measure of misdirection and puffery.
You can see where I’m going with this.
Wunderkinder Scott has an instructive response to an argument I made here regarding Bush’s deceptive rhetoric in the build-up to war:
Politicians strive to “ensure that the public is well-informed”? Please! I’m not going to argue that I was shocked when President Clinton challenged the definition of “is”. I mean, that’s “pushing the limits” of honesty about as far as possible. It’s also politics. When you’re making a case, you use all the relevant facts at your disposal, and you paint them in the best way to the public. This goes whether you’re excerpting economic studies for a tax plan, or making the case for war.
The case of Bush and the war, however, is quite different. For one thing, unlike the Paula Jones trial it concerned a public policy debate. For another thing, unlike a debate about economic policy it concerned information to which the president had special access. When we debate tax policy we expect our politicians to be nothing more than sources of argument concerning which policy to adopt. When we debate going to war, however, we rely on the President of the United States to accurately portray the intelligence he has received, for the White House is our only source for this information. The public simply cannot deliberate on how to respond to American intelligence if we are being deliberately misled about the contents of that intelligence.
I’m certainly prepared to cut Bush more slack than he is on this; where he sees misrepresentation, I see puffery and misdirection. I think Matthew is acting naive – and I know he actually isn’t – in suggesting somehow that the American history of debates about war (any war) is an unbroken record of contemplative public debates based on pure fact. Or that any other debate about war in any other nation is handled that way.
But I do think, as I’ve said over and over and over again that Bush is vulnerable (which in turn makes the war effort vulnerable) because he’s done a bad job of selling his policies and overall strategy to the public.
Is this in part because of a ‘disloyal media’, and does Bush thereby get a pass?? Yglesias has the best reply of all (in a post about Joe Conason’s new book):
I worry that folks on the left are growing far too concerned with “the right-wing propaganda machine” as a source of our woes. Certainly, sans propaganda machine the GOP wouldn’t be doing nearly as well as it does, but at the end of the day complaining that your political opponents have a propaganda machine is like complaining that the jockey you’re riding against has a horse … that’s just the way the game is played. Moreover, it’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools and I’d much rather see liberals working on perfecting our own strokes than on worrying about what the other guy’s doing.
(fixed embarassingly omitted links)