Magazine article The New Yorker

Recession Election

Magazine article The New Yorker

Recession Election

Article excerpt

Franklin Roosevelt was a lucky man and, in 1932, a lucky candidate. Start with the name--or, as today's political marketers would say, the brand. F.D.R.'s name paired that of the twinkly, kindly philosopher of the American Revolution--the Uncle of His Country--with that of his own distant cousin, the most popular and dynamic President of the still-young twentieth century and the namesake of the Teddy bear, to boot. On top of that, F.D.R. was born to wealth and position. Just in time for radio, he had a beautiful voice. His political base was the most populous state in the nation. He was even lucky in his bad luck: people knew, vaguely, that he had had polio, but the mannerly conventions of what was not yet called the media kept his disability below the level of public consciousness.

The current President of the United States is a lucky man, too, on the whole. He's had to be, if only to surmount his name (a veritable catalogue of unfortunate rhymes and echoes) and his birth (which, besides providing fodder for malevolent fantasies, brought him no riches, no entree into any elite, and a skin color that presented some challenges). Barack Obama won the Democratic Presidential nomination by dint of his own large talents, a superior strategy, and his opposition to the Iraq War, but his (and his party's) victory in the general election was mainly a function of public unhappiness with the record of the outgoing Administration, culminating in the most serious crisis in the economy since the one that lifted Roosevelt to power. For both men, national economic disaster was electoral good fortune. But Obama's luck ran out almost as soon as the votes had been counted. F.D.R.'s held. Many factors account for the difference, but the biggest is a mundane matter of timing.

As of Black Thursday--the stock-market crash of October 24, 1929--Roosevelt's Inauguration was more than three years away. In the long interim, the unemployment rate went from three per cent to twenty-five per cent. Average family incomes fell by a third, industrial production by nearly half, housing starts by four-fifths, stock prices by nine-tenths. Eleven thousand banks ceased to exist, taking the savings of some ten million depositors into the ether with them. By the time Roosevelt moved into the White House, what had begun as a financial panic had become an existential threat. The Great Depression had fully taken hold. Its effects had been felt for years. No one could argue that the new President or his party was to blame for it, or that getting out of it would be a quick or easy task.

The rough equivalent of the '29 crash--the collapse of Lehman Brothers--took place on September 15, 2008, the day that John McCain declared that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." It was a mere seven weeks until Election Day. The economy had been an issue well before that, of course. Under the Bush Administration and its tax cuts, growth was sluggish. All of its fruits, such as they were, trickled up to the top, mostly to a tiny sliver atop the top: by 2007, the richest one per cent were claiming almost a quarter of total national income, their highest share since 1928. (When Ronald Reagan launched the era of modern conservatism, it had been one-tenth.) Under Bush, the wages and incomes of average families actually declined. But when Obama declared his candidacy, in February of 2007, unemployment--the most politically salient of economic numbers--was below five per cent. When he accepted the Democratic nomination, in August of 2008, it was still "only" 6. …

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