F.D.R's Example Offers Lessons for Obama

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The shorthand verdict on Roosevelt, economists and historians say, is that he was an eloquent and skillful politician, and an innovator in jobs programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and in regulatory steps like the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission to police Wall Street. But Roosevelt, they say, while brilliant in many ways, did not have a sure grasp of how to guide the economy as a whole.

“Roosevelt had some successes, but we hope that Obama is going to do better,” said Kenneth S. Rogoff, a professor of economics at Harvard. “Otherwise, we’re in trouble.”

Roosevelt’s New Deal is often portrayed as an embrace of Keynesian economics, which advocates increased government spending to combat economic downturns and generate jobs.

Yet despite New Deal programs and some aid to the states, total government spending — federal, state and local — as a share of the economy throughout the 1930s remained at just under 20 percent. (Today, total government spending is more than 35 percent, a larger buffer against weakness in the private sector.)

During the 1930s, the unemployment rate fell somewhat under Roosevelt, but remained stubbornly high, averaging more than 17 percent for the decade.

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