CNN’s Candy Crowley made a noteworthy comment on the air last night, and we’ve heard similar remarks from other media figures quite a bit lately. The subject was President Obama’s prospects for a second term.
“He has to buck history, number one, a president with that kind of high unemployment rate has never been re-elected at 9 percent.”
At first blush, the observation is plainly false. Franklin Delano Roosevelt won a second term when unemployment was at 17%.
In fairness, though, Crowley probably just misspoke, and meant to refer to the post-Depression era. But even if we give her the benefit of the doubt here, the observation is largely pointless.
As a factual matter, it’s true that every president since FDR who’s won re-election has seen an unemployment rate below 7.2%. Will the unemployment rate fall below 7.2% by Election Day 2012? No one, anywhere, believes this is even remotely realistic.
But the context matters, and the media routinely pretends it doesn’t exist. No president since FDR has won with a high unemployment rate because no president since FDR has had to govern at a time of a global economic crisis like the Great Depression or the Great Recession. The U.S. has seen plenty of downturns over the last eight decades, but financial collapses are fairly rare, produce far more severe conditions, and take much longer to recover from.
Of course the unemployment rate won’t be below 7.2%. Under the circumstances and given the calamity Obama inherited, that’s impossible.
The more relevant question is what Americans are willing to tolerate and consider in context. In 1934, during FDR’s first midterms, the unemployment rate was about 22%. The public was thrilled — not because a 22% unemployment rate is good news, but because it had come down considerably from 1932. By 1936, when FDR was seeking re-eleciotn, the unemployment rate was about 17%. How can an incumbent president win re-election with a 17% unemployment rate? Because things were getting better, not worse.
That’s obviously the challenge for President Obama. The numerical thresholds are largely irrelevant — comparing the current economic circumstances to what other modern presidents have dealt with is silly. The more relevant metric is directional — are things better or getting worse by the time voters head to the polls, and if worse, who gets the blame.
What’s more, let’s also not lose sight of sample sizes. CNN’s Crowley made it seem as if no American president has ever won a second term with this high an unemployment rate. But even if we limit the analysis to the post-FDR era, as Dana Houle explained a couple of months ago, “Since FDR only Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and the two Bush’s have been elected president and then sought reelection. It’s hard to draw big conclusions from a sample of seven.”
If the media is preoccupied with this metric, it will shape the public’s perceptions and help drive the campaign. Here’s hoping news outlets come to realize how incomplete this picture is.
By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, September 4, 2011
Marjorie Cohn, immediate past president of the National Lawyers Guild, has a post up at Op-Ed News, “Lost in the Debt Ceiling Debate: The Legal Duty to Create Jobs” addressing the federal government’s failure to comply with existing job-creation legislation.
Cohn focuses primarily on The Employment Act of 1946 and the Humphrey-Hawkins Act of 1978, noting also mandates for job-creation in 1977 reforms requiring the Federal Reserve to leverage monetary policy to promote maximum employment. She ads that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets a global standard of employment as an important right, which, not incidentally, some major industrialized nations have actually tried to honor.
Cohn’s review of the two jobs acts provides a timely reminder of the moral imperative that faces every great democracy, the responsibility to take action to help insure that every family has at least one breadwinner who earns a living wage:
The first full employment law in the United States was passed in 1946. It required the country to make its goal one of full employment…With the Keynesian consensus that government spending was necessary to stimulate the economy and the depression still fresh in the nation’s mind, this legislation contained a firm statement that full employment was the policy of the country.As originally written, the bill required the federal government do everything in its authority to achieve full employment, which was established as a right guaranteed to the American people. Pushback by conservative business interests, however, watered down the bill. While it created the Council of Economic Advisers to the President and the Joint Economic Committee as a Congressional standing committee to advise the government on economic policy, the guarantee of full employment was removed from the bill.
In the aftermath of the rise in unemployment which followed the “oil crisis” of 1975, Congress addressed the weaknesses of the 1946 act through the passage of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978. The purpose of this bill as described in its title is:
“An Act to translate into practical reality the right of all Americans who are able, willing, and seeking to work to full opportunity for useful paid employment at fair rates of compensation; to assert the responsibility of the Federal Government to use all practicable programs and policies to promote full employment, production, and real income, balanced growth, adequate productivity growth, proper attention to national priorities.”
The Act sets goals for the President. By 1983, unemployment rates should be not more than 3% for persons age 20 or over and not more than 4% for persons age 16 or over, and inflation rates should not be over 4%. By 1988, inflation rates should be 0%. The Act allows Congress to revise these goals over time.
If private enterprise appears not to be meeting these goals, the Act expressly calls for the government to create a “reservoir of public employment.” These jobs are required to be in the lower ranges of skill and pay to minimize competition with the private sector.
The Act directly prohibits discrimination on account of gender, religion, race, age or national origin in any program created under the Act. Humphey-Hawkins has not been repealed. Both the language and the spirit of this law require the government to bring unemployment down to 3% from over 9%…
This legislation only requires the federal government to take action. The private sector, which employs 85+ percent of the labor force, would be indirectly influenced by monetary policy, but would not be required to do any hiring. Still, full enforcement of existing legislation could substantially reduce unemployment by putting millions of jobless Americans to work in public service projects rebuilding our tattered infrastructure.
The ’46 and ’78 full employment laws have been winked at and shrugged off by elected officials for decades as merely symbolic statutes, despite the fact that they actually do require the President, Congress and the Fed to do specific things to create jobs.
Cohn points out that Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) has introduced “The Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act” (HR 870), to fund job-training and job-creation programs, funded by taxes on financial transactions. But the bill has no chance as long as Republicans control the House.
Cohn urges President Obama to demand that the Fed “…use all the tools relating to controlling the money supply…to create the funds called for by HR 870, and to start putting people back to work through direct funding of a reservoir of public jobs as Humphrey-Hawkins mandates.” Imagine the political donnybrook that would ensue following such action, legal though it apparently would be. It’s an interesting scenario that needs some fleshing out.
The best hope for full employment remains electing strong Democratic majorities to both houses of congress, while retaining the presidency. Under this scenario, full enforcement of the ’46 and ’78 employment acts is certainly doable. But it’s a very tough challenge, given the Republican edge in Senate races next year.
There are signs that the public is tiring of the tea party obstruction of government, and therefore hope that at least some Republicans may have to move toward the center to survive. It’s possible they could be influenced by energetic protest and lobbying campaigns by their constituents.
Like other groups across the political spectrum, we progressives are very good at blaming elected officials when they don’t follow through on their reform promises. But too many progressive Dems fail to realize that finger-pointing, while necessary, is only part of our responsibility. If we really want to see significant progressive change, especially full employment, we simply must escalate our protest activities to compel our elected and government officials to act.
At a white house meeting, FDR reportedly told the great African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph “Make me do it” in response to Randolph’s appeal for racial justice and economic reform. Roosevelt was not being a smart ass; He was underscoring an important law of politics, that elected officials need protest to galvanize them to act, and progressive politicians welcome it because it provides cover, as well as encouragement.
Regarding protest leadership, we have a great role model, whose 30+ foot stone image will be unveiled not far from the Lincoln, Jefferson and FDR Memorials on the National Mall in the capitol August 28th. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial will not only honor the historic contributions of a great African American leader; It will also inspire — and challenge — coming generations of all races to emulate his strategy of militant but dignified nonviolent protest to achieve social and economic justice.
Let’s not forget that the Great March on Washington MLK and Randolph lead in 1963 was not only about racial justice. The twin goals were “Jobs and Freedom,” a challenge that echoes with prophetic relevance for our times. It was FDR who said “make me do it,” and MLK showed us the way, not only with one demonstration, but with a sustained commitment to mass protest. Now let’s make them do it.
By: J. P. Green, The Democratic Strategist, August 13, 2011
Peppered with complaints about his relative silence and flagging leadership, the president urges his friends and allies to be patient. They are understandably skittish: His low profile is underscored by unceasing criticism from his political opponents and even broadcast commentators. His supporters wonder what happened to the politician who had used new technology to communicate with the American people.
Barack Obama in 2011, assailed by friends and foes alike for quiescence in the face of—take your pick—the looming budget battle, disaster in Japan, or upheavals in the Mideast and Midwest? No. Try Franklin Roosevelt in 1935. With Father Coughlin and others railing on the radio and in Congress during a period of slow motion on his agenda, Roosevelt was besieged by nervous allies wondering why he wasn’t showing more vocal and forceful leadership. “My difficulty is a strange and weird sense known as ‘public psychology,’ ” he wrote to one supporter. He explained to another his belief that the public cannot “be attuned for long periods of time to a constant repetition of the highest note on the scale.” [See the month's best editorial cartoons.]
FDR had mastered what his cousin Teddy had termed the “bully pulpit,” not simply through great speeches, but through an understanding of that platform’s limitations. Overexposure can diminish its power as the president’s voice becomes one of many, so it is most effective when used judiciously. Consider Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats. Popular imagination sees them as something like the modern weekly radio address. In fact, he never gave more than four in a year.
Another president who understood the limitations of the bully pulpit was John F. Kennedy. During his brief tenure too, allies complained of his failure to speak often or forcefully enough on key issues, especially civil rights.
“The nation will listen only if it is a moment of great urgency,” he once said. He liked to quote Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, where in response to Owen Glendower’s boast that he can “call spirits from the vasty deep,” Hotspur replies: “Why, so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call for them?” Kennedy understood that the power of a president’s speech is constrained, or augmented, by context. To the extent his audience is primed for a message, it resonates, multiplying the power of that address. The most effective presidents find a leadership balance where they are far enough in front of public opinion to lead it, but not so far as to lose it.
JFK and FDR had another important commonality: They were skilled communicators at times of communication revolution. FDR came into office just as most U.S. households first had radio receivers. He wasn’t the first president to deal with this new mass medium, but he was the first to understand the opportunity it provided to fundamentally change the way presidents engaged with voters.
So too Kennedy was not the first president to deal with television, but he was the first to figure out what kind of new communications opportunities it afforded. He used weekly televised news conferences, the first such presidential appearances to be broadcast. Columnist James Reston warned the president that it was “the goofiest idea since the hula hoop,” but Kennedy relished the opportunity to connect directly with the voters. And the news conferences allowed him to flash his most winning qualities: his smarts, his broad grasp of facts and data, and of course his ironic wit. Kennedy referred to these conferences as “the 6 o’clock comedy hour.” But more seriously, he said, “We couldn’t survive without them.”
Which brings us back to Obama, another eloquent Democrat taking criticism for inexpertly using (or failing to use) the bully pulpit. Poor Obama has gotten it coming and going. When he first took office he was seemingly everywhere at once, and widely panned as being overexposed. This lurching approach to public communications is due at least in part to the fact that Obama, like his predecessors, is trying to govern at a time of communication transformation. In fact he is arguably dealing with a double revolution, involving both the fracturing of the old mass media (presidents can no longer count on the television audience being easily captured on just three networks) and the rise of the new social media. At first Obama and his team tried to flood the zone; now they seem to have adopted a more classical view that the presidential voice is a resource to be husbanded.
Obama is caught at the crux of a tension in presidential leadership that has grown since FDR chatted with Americans at their firesides. The limitations of the bully pulpit are in opposition to the demands have placed on it. In his single term as president, from 1929 to 1933, Herbert Hoover made an average of eight public appearances per month. In his thousand days, JFK made 19 per month. In his first term, Bill Clinton averaged 28. In his two years in office, according to statistics compiled by CBS News’s Mark Knoller, Obama averaged more than 42 public appearances per month. Presidents must speak more, even if it diminishes the power of their voice.
In noting similarities between Obama and his predecessors, I do not mean to suggest equivalency. It may well be that in 50 years historians will say that Obama was the first real social media president in the way of FDR and radio and JFK and television. But if such mastery does emerge, it is currently still a work in progress. In the meantime, his friends especially would do well to remember that the bully pulpit is not a cure-all. And that even our most eloquent leaders have had good reasons for their silence as well as their words.
By: Robert Schlesinger, U.S. News and World Report, March 23, 2011
Maine Governor Paul LePage has ordered state workers to remove from the state labor department a 36-foot mural depicting the state’s labor history. Among other things the mural illustrates the 1937 shoe mill strike in Auburn and Lewiston. It also features the iconic “Rosie the Riveter,” who in real life worked at the Bath Iron Works. One panel shows my predecessor at the U.S. Department of Labor, Frances Perkins, who was buried in Newcastle, Maine.
The LePage Administration is also renaming conference rooms that had carried the names of historic leaders of American labor, as well as former Secretary Perkins.
The Governor’s spokesman explains that the mural and the conference-room names were “not in keeping with the department’s pro-business goals.”
Are we still in America?
Frances Perkins was the first woman cabinet member in American history. She was also one of the most accomplished cabinet members in history.
She and her boss, Franklin D. Roosevelt, came to office at a time when average working people needed help – and Perkins and Roosevelt were determined to give it to them. Together, they created Social Security, unemployment insurance, the right of workers to unionize, the minimum wage, and the forty-hour workweek.
Big business and Wall Street thought Perkins and Roosevelt were not in keeping with pro-business goals. So they and their Republican puppets in Congress and in the states retaliated with a political assault on the New Deal.
Roosevelt did not flinch. In a speech in October 1936 he condemned “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.”
Big business and Wall Street, he said,
had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.
Fast forward 75 years.
Big business and Wall Street have emerged from the Great Recession with their pockets bulging. Profits and bonuses are as high as they were before the downturn. And they’re spending like mad on lobbying and politics. After the Supreme Court’s disgraceful Citizens United decision, there are no limits.
Pro-business goals are breaking out all over. Governors across America are slashing corporate taxes as they slash state budgets. House and Senate Republicans are intent on deregulating, privatizing, and cutting spending and taxes so their corporate and Wall Street patrons will do even better.
But most Americans are still in desperate trouble. Few if any of the economic gains are trickling down.
That’s why the current Republican assault on workers – on their right to form unions, on unemployment insurance and Social Security, on public employees, and even (courtesy of Governor LePage) on our common memory – is so despicable.
And it’s why we need a President who will fight for workers and fight against this assault — just as Perkins and FDR did.
By the way, Maine’s Governor LePage may be curious to know that the building housing the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington is named the “Frances Perkins Building.” He can find her portrait hanging prominently inside. Also portraits and murals of great leaders of American labor.
A short walk across the mall will bring Governor LePage to an imposing memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt, should the Governor wish to visit.
Governor, you might be able to erase some of Maine’s memory, but you’ll have a hard time erasing the nation’s memory – even if it’s not in keeping with your pro-business goals.
By: Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley, March 23, 2011