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Trump and Roosevelt: A Study in Contrasts

Jonathan Bernstein
·4 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) --

Let’s talk political leadership.

You probably know that Franklin Roosevelt began his presidency, at the depths of the Great Depression, by telling Americans that they had “nothing to fear except fear itself.” What’s less well known is that this message wasn’t merely an abstract call for confidence. It was far more specific than that.

In March 1933, when Roosevelt became president, the immediate danger to the nation was the collapse of the banks as a series of bank runs had spread around the nation. Roosevelt shut them all down — the bank “holiday” — and, after telling people in his inaugural address not to be afraid, gave his first “fireside chat,” which was a dense, detailed description of what he had done and why the re-opened banks could be trusted. Or, perhaps, the denseness and the details were there to convince people that their new president could be trusted. At any rate, the banks re-opened, and as it turned out people did believe Roosevelt. They didn’t rush to retrieve their money while they could.

The Depression wasn’t cured. The economy did rally, but times stayed terrible for a long time. But I think it’s fair to say that after that point, doubts about an eventual recovery — doubts that a combination of democracy and a market economy could survive — were dramatically diminished.

It’s rare for presidential words to be all that important to citizens. We’re used to presidents asking people to support bills, or perhaps to vote for a candidate the president endorses, and political scientists know that such appeals really don’t have much practical effect on behavior. But it strikes me that while we’re not at anything like March 1933 right now in the United States, this really has been a time in which citizens were open to listening to the president and taking action.

And yet Trump has repeatedly failed. He spent valuable time falsely reassuring everyone but the elderly and the sick that they were safe from the coronavirus, instead of urging everyone to take the threat seriously and follow the social distancing advice experts were urging. Yes, Trump did occasionally get it right, but far too often before the last few days he practically told most citizens that this wasn’t about them.

And then when governors and mayors took the lead and started shutting things down, Trump has again had virtually nothing to say to the employers, especially small business owners, who have had critical decisions to make. And congressional leaders haven’t been any better. Even more than getting the policy right — and that’s going to be very difficult — what really might have helped would have been some confidence-inspiring words from Washington assuring people that the federal government was ready and able to support them even as the government was also shutting them down.

Perhaps the current avalanche of layoffs was inevitable. But perhaps employers who had confidence that the government would be there for them would have acted differently.

There are a lot of things that have gone wrong so far (although I’ll say again that while a critical look back is necessary, perfection isn’t a reasonable standard of judgment). But on top of the botched roll-out of testing and the failure so far to procure sufficient medical supplies and new hospital capacity, it does strike me that Trump has absolutely failed his responsibility to talk to the nation. Part of it is that he still can’t manage to consistently tell the truth, which continues to undermine his ability to inspire trust. But an even larger part is he just can’t seem to deliver the messages that the nation — and Trump’s own self-interest — require.

1. Nathaniel Persily and Charles Stewart III on running the 2020 election during the pandemic.

2. Dan Drezner on Trump’s response earlier this week.

3. Rachel Tecott and Erik Sand at the Monkey Cage on the pandemic and the U.S. military.

4. Aaron Carroll and Ashish Jha on beating the coronavirus.

5. Heather Boushey, Bob Greenstein, Neera Tanden and Felicia Wong share a message: Don’t worry about federal budget deficits now.

6. Philip Klein speculates about the future of social distancing.

7. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith on beating hoarding.

8. David E. Sanger, Eric Lipton, Eileen Sullivan and Michael Crowley report on why it’s wrong to say that no one thought a pandemic could arrive like this. We were warned. The Trump administration was warned. And yet it ignored the warnings.

9. And a nice Irin Carmon conversation with Helen Branswell.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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