Dangers of 'Dr. Debt Deal' Identity; President's Talent for Building Mountains of IOUs Won't Win Second Term

Article excerpt


After Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's presi- dency changed. As he put it in 1943, Dr. New Deal had to be replaced by Dr. Win the War. It was a colossal policy switch, but it wasn't an extreme makeover politically. He was still the same FDR, and the public understood the need for change.

It saved his presidency. As President Obama's former economic adviser, Larry Summers, said recently, "Never forget .. that if Hitler had not

come along, Franklin Roosevelt would have left office in 1941 with an unemployment rate in excess of 15 percent and an economic recovery strategy that had basically failed"

Many economic historians, such as Robert Higgs, disagree with Mr. Summers on the substantive point about World War II being good for the economy. But Mr. Summers was absolutely right politically about the New Deal and about the fact that the war saved FDR's bacon.

Mr. Obama desperately needs to make a similar change but, thank goodness, providence isn't offering any Pearl Harbors these days.

It's very hard to make a new first impression, particularly for presidents seeking another term. Of course, if things are going well, you don't need to reinvent yourself. Dwight Eisenhower stayed the same reassuring duffer-in-chief throughout the relatively tranquil 1950s.

In 1972, Richard Nixon rode a seemingly good economy and foreign policy success to a landslide re-election victory - 60 percent of the popular vote. Ronald Reagan stayed Reagan in 1984 amid a surging economy.

George W. Bush made a switch, from Mr. Compassionate Conservative to President Dead-or-Alive. But, like FDR with Pearl Harbor, his political task was the result of an unprovoked attack and the wars that followed.

A major strain of conventional wisdom in Washington these days is that Mr. Obama can win re-election by tacking to the center. Bill Clinton, who famously triangulated his way into a second term, is the model. Theoretically, Mr. Obama can do the same thing by leveraging a centrist debt-limit deal against his base, winning back the independents and moderates who delivered his decisive victory in 2008. …