Conservative media react to talk of Obama-led economic recovery by attacking FDR and New Deal

››› ››› MATT GERTZ, BRIAN FREDERICK, LILY YAN, GREG LEWIS & JOCELYN FONG

In recent weeks, several conservative media figures, echoed by Republican lawmakers, have responded to comparisons in the media of President-elect Barack Obama to FDR, or assertions in the media that a New Deal-level of government intervention will be necessary to resolve the current economic crisis, by asserting that the New Deal was a dismal failure, plunging the 1930s economy into a depression, an assertion that prominent progressive economists flatly reject.

In recent weeks, as the current state of the economy is giving rise to references to the Great Depression, some media outlets have drawn comparisons between President-elect Barack Obama and former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, characterizing Obama as inclined or compelled to take dramatic New Deal-level measures to revive the economy. During a November 16 CBS' 60 Minutes interview, correspondent Steve Kroft asked Obama if he had been "reading anything about the Depression, anything about FDR," and Kroft also referred to reports that "a number of Democratic congressmen have proposed programs that are part of sort of a new New Deal." On its November 24 cover, Time magazine superimposed Obama's face on an iconic image of Roosevelt with the title, "The New New Deal"; in the accompanying essay, contributor Peter Beinart argued that Obama might be in a position to effect a transformation on an ailing but receptive country as dramatic as the change Roosevelt brought about in his time.

Numerous conservative media figures and public leaders have responded to the comparisons -- Obama to Roosevelt, the current economic crisis to the Great Depression -- as well as to suggestions that measures on the scope of the New Deal are needed to revive the economy by denouncing the New Deal as ineffective or damaging, thereby arguing that government intervention on the scale that Roosevelt launched destroys rather than saves the economy. During the November 23 edition of ABC's This Week, Washington Post columnist George Will asked, "Before we go into a new New Deal, can we just acknowledge that the first New Deal didn't work?" He added: "That is, the biggest collapse in industrial production in history occurred in 1937, eight years after the stock market collapse of 1929, five years into the New Deal."

The comments echoed remarks Will made the week before on This Week when he asserted that "one of the ways we turned a depression into the Great Depression that didn't end until the Japanese fleet appeared off Hawaii was that there were no rules, and investors went on strike, because the government was completely improvising." He added: "Net investment was negative through almost all of the '30s because, again, people did not know the environment in which they were operating because the government had the fidgets and would not let rules and markets work."

New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, who participated in This Week's November 16 roundtable, responded:

KRUGMAN: No, the negative net investment was because, you know, when you have 20 percent unemployment, and all the factories are standing idle, who wants to build a new one? You don't need to invoke the government to explain that. No, what actually happened was, you know, there was an -- there was a collapse of the financial system, which was not restored for a long time. There was a persistent deep slump in consumer demand and, therefore, no investment demand, and so you were stuck in this trap.

Roosevelt got the economy moving somewhat. By 1937, things were a lot better than they were in 1933. Then he was persuaded to balance the budget, or try to, and he raised taxes and cut spending and the economy went back down again. And it took an enormous public works program known as World War II to bring the economy out of the Depression.

Krugman's comments echo arguments in his November 10 New York Times column, in which he asserted that Roosevelt's policies included "long-run achievements" that "remain the bedrock of our nation's economic stability," and that Roosevelt's short-term successes were constrained because "his economic policies were too cautious." Krugman wrote:

Now, there's a whole intellectual industry, mainly operating out of right-wing think tanks, devoted to propagating the idea that F.D.R. actually made the Depression worse. So it's important to know that most of what you hear along those lines is based on deliberate misrepresentation of the facts. The New Deal brought real relief to most Americans.

[...]

F.D.R. wasn't just reluctant to pursue an all-out fiscal expansion -- he was eager to return to conservative budget principles. That eagerness almost destroyed his legacy. After winning a smashing election victory in 1936, the Roosevelt administration cut spending and raised taxes, precipitating an economic relapse that drove the unemployment rate back into double digits and led to a major defeat in the 1938 midterm elections.

Similarly, in a November 17 post on his personal blog, Brad DeLong, an economics professor at the University of California-Berkeley, wrote, "Private investment recovered in a very healthy fashion as Roosevelt's New Deal policies took effect. The interruption of the Roosevelt Recovery in 1937-1938 is, I think, wel [sic] understood: Roosevelt's decision to adopt more 'orthodox' economic policies and try to move the budget toward balance and the Federal Reserve's decision to contract the money supply by raising bank reserve requirements provide ample explanation of that downturn."

Other media conservatives have also referred to Time's Obama-Roosevelt comparison to attack Obama and assert that Roosevelt's efforts did not work, without making the distinction Krugman made between the New Deal and what Krugman wrote was Roosevelt's "eager[ness] to return to conservative budget principles" in 1937. Some cite former Wall Street Journal writer Amity Shlaes' 2007 book, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (HarperCollins) to attack suggestions that significant further government intervention is necessary to save the economy.

  • In his November 18 National Review column, editor Rich Lowry also cited Shlaes and addressed the Time cover in the context of attacking Obama and the New Deal:

    Democrats are enjoying a New Deal reverie wherein a Democratic president solves an economic crisis with public-works projects. The new issue of Time magazine features Obama on the cover decked out in the trappings of FDR. This image would accurately capture the moment, (1) if Obama -- president-elect for all of two weeks -- had actually accomplished something, and (2) if Franklin Roosevelt's economic program had really ended the Great Depression.

    Neither is true. As Amity Shlaes documents in her book The Forgotten Man, the economy limped along under FDR's stewardship in the 1930s. Many of the era's public-works projects were undertaken for political reasons as well as economic ones.

  • In a November 18 post on The American Spectator blog, The Obama Watch, contributor Jeffrey Lord referred to Beinart's Time story in criticizing one of Obama's responses during his 60 Minutes interview, writing:

    The Obama idea behind doing "something that works" is, as Time acknowledges, nothing if not the new New Deal in both fact and form. What goes unmentioned by Mr. Beinart and his editors is that FDR's penchant for experimenting effectively unstabilized the American economy for a full decade. Markets crave stability and FDR proudly promised none. He tried "something that works" with currency and exchange policy, agriculture, utilities and the gold standard, to name but a few. The last policy was so erratic no less than the famed economist John Maynard Keynes described FDR's work as "the gold standard on the booze." According to Amity Shlaes, author of the current bestseller The Forgotten Man, one fine morning FDR informed his advisors he was raising the gold standard by twenty-one cents. Why? Said FDR in a classic "something that works" response: "It's a lucky number because it's three times seven."

    [...]

    The problem for President-elect Obama and his friends is that decades after the post-New Deal era have in fact gone by. To re-offer the New Deal in 2008 is just the same Old Deal.

    What's "something that works" really all about? What is this cry for a new New Deal? As a new generation is about to learn, it is nothing more than the policy of the con job.

  • In a column written the week before the election, U.S. News and World Report senior writer Michael Barone also cited Shlaes and wrote that "[w]ith victory in sight, Barack Obama's supporters are predicting that he will give us a new New Deal. To see what that might mean, let's look back on the original New Deal." He continued:

    The purpose of New Deal legislation was not, as commonly thought, to restore economic growth but rather to freeze the economy in place at a time when it seemed locked in a downward spiral. Its central program, the National Recovery Administration (NRA), created 700 industry councils for firms and unions to set minimum prices and wages. The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), the ancestor of our farm bills, limited production to hold up prices. Unionization, encouraged by NRA and the 1935 Wagner Act, was meant to keep workers in jobs that the unemployed would have taken at lower pay.

    These policies did break the downward spiral. But, as Amity Shlaes points out in The Forgotten Man, they failed to restore growth. Double-digit unemployment continued throughout the 1930s; despite population growth, the economy failed to rebound to 1920s production levels. High taxes on high earners (a Herbert Hoover as well as Franklin Roosevelt policy) financed welfare payments ("spread the wealth around") but reduced investment and growth.

University of Texas professor James Galbraith responded to Shlaes's thesis by criticizing her methodology; on November 18, at a Campaign for America's Future conference, Galbraith stated that "the underlying numbers, which Shlaes uses ... do not count the people who actually worked on the New Deal as employed. They count them as unemployed. Why did they do that? Because in retrospect, to give -- to put a charitable construction on it, they wanted to assess the condition of the private economy."

Some conservative media figures and politicians have attacked Obama by asserting that Roosevelt not only did not improve the economy, but made it worse, also without making the distinction that Krugman made between Roosevelt's policies pre-1937 and those after. In a November 19 column, National Review Online editor-at-large Jonah Goldberg referred to the portion of the 60 Minutes interview in which Obama stated that "what you see in FDR that I hope my team can emulate is not always getting it right, but projecting a sense of confidence and a willingness to try things and experiment in order to get people working again." Goldberg wrote that "FDR always projected such confidence, even as he made things worse. But this isn't another column about how FDR prolonged the Depression. Been there, done that." Indeed, on October 9, Goldberg had appeared on CNN Headline News' Glenn Beck and stated, "FDR's policies made the depression longer and deeper. Everywhere else in the world, they had the depression. In America, FDR made the depression great."

Conservative radio hosts have also claimed that the New Deal created or extended the Great Depression in arguing that Obama's policies might also make have a similar effect:

  • During the November 24 broadcast of Clear Channel's The War Room, co-host Jim Quinn, discussing how Democrats might deal with the current economic problems, stated: "[W]hat they're doing right now is exactly the template for what FDR did to create the Depression. Everyone thinks that the crash of '99 -- or '29 -- created a Depression. It didn't. It created a recession. It was what FDR did that turned it into a Great Depression." He added: "We are getting prepared to exactly the same thing. He called it 'priming the pump'; Obama calls it 'stimulus.' "
  • During the November 23 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Bill Cunningham stated of "liberal Democrats": "Instead of putting grease in the wheels of the American economy, they're going to put sand, and they're going to exacerbate a recession into a depression, much like Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in 1933, 4, and 5. We were in a serious recession. By the time FDR got done, we were in a full-fledged depression."
  • During the November 24 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Mark Levin asserted that "the New Deal almost destroyed this country." He continued: "It extended the Depression for seven years. It's created massive debt that we've been carrying for 75 years, and one day, that will come due as well. The New Deal had nothing to do with our economic recovery, it was World War II." Levin also argued that there was "24.9 percent unemployment at the height of the New Deal," and that "not until World War II did it come down from double digits."

These conservative media attacks are echoed in the comments of Republican elected officials:

  • In an October 30 column on National Review Online, former Rep. Pat Toomey (PA) wrote that "[f]ive major policy errors helped turn the 1929 downturn into a full-blown Depression lasting over ten years, and Barack Obama has promised to repeat all five of these." He further wrote that "Hoover's and Roosevelt's misguided policies on taxes, trade, spending, labor, and regulation surely cost millions of jobs and inflicted years of economic misery. Barack Obama is promising a return to those failed policies. The stock market has noticed."
  • In a statement released on November 21, Rep. Mike Pence (IN), who was elected chairman of the House Republican Conference, asserted that "if we will fight for the interests of everyday Americans and offer positive substantive alternatives without unnecessary acrimony, the American people will soon tire of the flowery speeches and see the Democratic agenda for what it is -- the failed ideas of the Great Society and the New Deal. And they will come looking for the alternative."

From the November 23 edition of ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos:

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (host): And there have been some suggestions, Arianna, that maybe -- at least some of his supporters have leaked this out in recent days -- well, maybe he was against not bailing out Lehman after all. He wanted more help from the government.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON (Huffington Post editor in chief): Right, exactly. And he's not ideological, and Obama has stressed again and again the importance of this being a fact-based administration where ideology does not rule. And he, in a way -- the president-elect -- has laid out the blueprint of massive public investment. It's not mailing out checks, as George said. It's very different. It's really rebuilding our infrastructure, rebuilding our schools, doing things that are actually both going to improve the economy in the long term and help get us out of the crisis faster.

STEPHANOPOULOS: [Treasury Secretary-designate Tim] Geithner and a new New Deal?

DAVID BROOKS (New York Times columnist): Maybe. You know, I guess the one thing I'd say is, one of things they cannot do is go back to the New Deal. One of the things they're talking about is building roads, building bridges. Well, sometimes it takes 80 months to get an infrastructure project actually going. The amount of money spent in the first couple of years in infrastructure -- miniscule. So, the one thing I'd say to them: Think about the new economy. This is a human capital economy. Think about relationships and not roads. And so, if I were designing employment plans --

STEPHANOPOULOS: And what does that mean exactly?

BROOKS: Right, if I were designing employment plans, the things I would think about is do some road building, build some schools -- that's fine -- but think about national service. Think about how you're going to build relationships. Think about how you're going to build federal money to create communities that actually employ a lot of people in a service sector sort of economy. To me, they're -- the way they're talking now, they're doing a lot of reading about [Roosevelt adviser] Harry Hopkins. I would spend a lot more time thinking about, "How am I going to build relationships using service, building communities?"

ROBERT KUTTNER (co-founder, The American Prospect): I really think -- respectfully, I disagree. It's a kind of a straw man. I mean, I think you have to do all of the above. I think the hit to the economy is so serious. Contrary to the usual belief, you can get infrastructure programs going pretty quickly, and by giving relief to state and local government, you get help on the way instantaneously. Right now, state and local governments are laying off people. They're deferring projects. They're cutting health and education. If the government cuts a check to state and local governments to the tune of $100, $150 billion dollars, not one of those layoffs have to occur.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Frees up some of their money in the [inaudible].

KUTTNER: So -- so, it may take some time -- let me just finish -- it make take some time to create new jobs, but at least we can prevent layoffs from occurring in state and local governments. And you can get infrastructure programs going within six months.

BROOKS: I'm not against that. I just think -- they're talking about, as [Sen.] Chuck Schumer [D-NY] did, 5 to $700 billion dollars. We can agree on state aid. I do agree on that. The things we know work: state aid works, food stamps works, extending unemployment -- which they've done -- that works. That clearly works to stimulate the economy. It's actually very hard to spend $700 billion quickly, and what they're -- if you've got a tiddlywinks hall of fame, they're going to fund that thing. They are going to fund everything.

WILL: They do that anyway under earmarks and all the rest. I mean, what you're proposing is reactionary liberalism. That is, whatever exists, double-down on it. Before we go into a new New Deal, can we just acknowledge the first New Deal didn't work? That is, the biggest collapse in industrial production in history occurred in 1937, eight years after the stock market collapse of 1929, five years into the New Deal.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, let me --

HUFFINGTON: You know, it is really another of the myths that conservatives cling to now, that the New Deal did not work. And it's really, as every sort of myth of conservatism has exploded --

WILL: Refute it.

HUFFINGTON: -- you know, whether it is -- you know, whether it is the fact that the "leave us alone coalition," you know, of Grover Norquist, or the tax-and-spend slogans -- those are not being repeated anymore. So, now we're going back to the New Deal, or as Senator [Richard] Shelby [R-AL] said, "We're not going to throw money at problems." I mean, I agree with Robert, that it's got to be both. It's got to be major infrastructure, public investments.

From the November 16 edition of This Week with George Stephanopoulos:

WILL: Sam, one of the ways we turned a depression into the Great Depression that didn't end until the Japanese fleet appeared off Hawaii was that there were no rules, and investors went on strike, because the government was completely improvising. Net investment was negative through almost all of the '30s because, again, people did not know the environment in which they were operating because the government had the fidgets and would not let rules and markets work.

KRUGMAN: This is not the way -- OK. It's not the way I read the history. It's not the way -- no. What actually happened --

WILL: Am I wrong about net investment?

SAM DONALDSON (ABC News correspondent): Yes.

KRUGMAN: No, the negative net investment was because, you know, when you have 20 percent unemployment, and all the factories are standing idle, who wants to build a new one? You don't need to invoke the government to explain that. No, what actually happened was, you know, there was an -- there was a collapse of the financial system, which was not restored for a long time. There was a persistent deep slump in consumer demand and, therefore, no investment demand, and so you were stuck in this trap.

Roosevelt got the economy moving somewhat. By 1937, things were a lot better than they were in 1933. Then he was persuaded to balance the budget, or try to, and he raised taxes and cut spending and the economy went back down again. And it took an enormous public works program known as World War II to bring the economy out of the Depression.

From the October 9 edition of CNN Headline News' Glenn Beck (accessed via Nexis):

GOLDBERG: The way I look at it is, the Great Depression was this thing that progressives in America were waiting for. They had been talking about how they wanted to revive what they did under Woodrow Wilson for -- throughout the 1920s, but the 1920s were prosperous and no one wanted to hand over the entire country, let alone the economy to a bunch of sort of pinhead social planners.

And then you had the Great Depression, and all of a sudden the progressives said, "Aha! This is our moment." And we've been seeing something similar over the last decade or so, where we've seen after Katrina all these intellectuals of the left start saying, "This proves it's time for a new New Deal."

After 9-11, people like Bill Moyers said, "This is time for a new New Deal." I think Chuck Schumer actually has a macro on his keyboard, just hits F-10 after any event, and it says, "This is the moment for a new New Deal."

GLENN BECK (host): Right.

GOLDBERG: And so they're looking at this, even though the new New Deal prolonged the Great Depression; it did not end the Great Depression.

BECK: World War II ended it.

GOLDBERG: Right. FDR's policies made the depression longer and deeper. Everywhere else in the world, they had the depression. In America, FDR made the depression great.

BECK: Great, yes. OK. So here's the thing that Americans should be concerned -- and I would honestly be saying this -- I mean, look, I don't trust John McCain, either. I have no idea what this guy's going to do with the economy.

From the November 24 edition of Clear Channel's The War Room with Quinn & Rose:

QUINN: Costco was a mob scene yesterday.

ROSE TENNENT (co-host): Really?

QUINN: Absolutely a mob scene.

TENNENT: See, that's how it was everywhere I was yesterday.

QUINN: Yeah. Yeah, and I'm thinking, "So, where's the bad economy?" And, you know, I had dinner with some friends on Saturday night at a very expensive restaurant. Place was full. It was -- full to the walls. Now -- but Democrats are working on it.

TENNENT: Yeah. Yeah.

QUINN: And we will have --

TENNENT: We'll get there eventually, don't worry.

QUINN: Yes. We'll have our Great Depression, OK, if they have anything to say about it, because --

TENNENT: Yeah, if it's the last thing they do.

QUINN: Well, that's -- well, what they're doing right now is exactly the template for what FDR did to create the Depression. Everybody thinks that the crash of '99 -- or '29 -- created the Depression. It didn't. It created a recession. It was what FDR did that turned it into a Great Depression. We are getting prepared to do exactly the same thing. He called it "priming the pump"; Obama calls it "stimulus." And we're gonna talk about that after the half-hour, and why it can't possibly work. And, you know, you would think by now -- I mean, you saw what happened to your 401(k) after they pumped $700 billion dollars into the system. What happened? It tanked.

TENNENT: Yup, nothing happened.

QUINN: Exactly.

TENNENT: Yeah, there's just nothing there.

QUINN: So, shows you that it doesn't work.

From the November 23 broadcast of Premiere Radio Networks' Live on Sunday Night, It's Bill Cunningham:

CUNNINGHAM: And as far as fear, there is a real sense that when you have a 401(k), that becomes a 201(k), on it's way to a 101(k). Your retirement's gonna be delayed, and there's a great fear that when colleges and universities in January jack up tuitions, loans may not be approved. People are having their home equity loans capped. They're having credit cards capped. There's a sense that 7 or 8 percent unemployment may become 10 to 12 percent, and that we're heading toward a collision and nobody's in charge.

And few people I know, John Tamney, believe that the liberal Democrats have an answer to help an ailing economy. Instead of putting grease in the wheels of the American economy, they're gonna put sand, and they're gonna exacerbate a recession into a depression, much like Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in 1933, 4, and 5. We were in a serious recession. By the time FDR got done, we were in a full-fledged depression. And I fear that's what coming.

From the November 24 edition of ABC Radio Networks' The Mark Levin Show:

LEVIN: Schumer was talking about a little New Deal, another New Deal. They're very excited. Well, the New Deal almost destroyed this country. It extended the Depression for seven years. It's created massive debt that we've been carrying for 75 years, and one day, that will come due as well. The New Deal had nothing to do with our economic recovery, it was World War II. And everybody knows it who's honest -- 24.9 percent unemployment at the height of the New Deal.

And not until World War II did it come down from double digits. And they spent the country into a massive debt. They created program after program, law after law, bureaucracy after bureaucracy. They built roads and buildings. They built bridges and tunnels. And the people were miserable. They were poor. They were hungry.

The economic system was on its back, because all that does is move a pot of money from one citizen to another. All it does is spread the wealth, or spread the income, if you will. It doesn't fix anything. And that's the road we're on. Whatever this is, it's going to be deeper and longer, because the way the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve and the Congress and this president and the next president will have reacted. How many more businesses are going to be subsidized to the tune of tens of billions of dollars?

Ladies and gentlemen, six months ago, if one company had come to Congress and said, "We need $5 billion to survive," we would've been stunned. We would've been repulsed. And these numbers -- $7.4 trillion -- are mind-numbing.

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