You call this a Depression? About the only thing this Panic of ’08 has in common with 1932 is a loss of faith. Once again the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” to quote Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address.
Throughout his first two terms, FDR did something even more important than acting: He appeared to act. If one policy didn’t work, he tried another. Much as this administration’s firm of Paulson and Bernanke are doing now. Barack Obama might describe such jumps back and forth as “erratic,” the way he does John McCain’s ever developing economic policies. But FDR, now one of the Democratic Party’s patron saints, believed in “bold experimentation,” which kept hope alive. And hope is the essence of credit.
Undeterred by attacks from the do-nothing right, which were balanced by separate but equally ferocious attacks from the do-everything left, the new president followed his own directionless course, swerving left and right like some agile bicyclist weaving through an impossible traffic tie-up, avoiding the crashes all around him, his only aim to keep his equilibrium and restore the country’s. In the end, FDR didn’t destroy the free market but saved it, which George W. Bush said this week was the object of his administration’s latest buy-out, this time of key banks.
Franklin Roosevelt was no intellectual, thank goodness. He was more interested in practice than theory. As a presidential aide once said of FDR, he may have had only a second-class intellect, but he had a first-class temperament. Adventuresome, inspiring, congenial, supremely confident, he was the ultimate Happy Warrior, a term he coined for Al Smith.
There’s a name for what FDR had and today’s doomsayers don’t: faith. Which is a curious lack in a country that has come through so much history, and will come through the Panic of ’08, too.