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FDR and Bipartisanship Myths

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There’s a long-standing myth repeated, among others, by the Obama Administration, that FDR hung Herbert Hoover out to dry after the 1932 election, refusing to help the president try and right the economy so that it would be extra bad by the time he took over. Then he would look good. This is just flat out not true. Michael Hiltzik:

As the economic and banking crises deepened during the months between the election and the inauguration on March 4, Hoover became convinced that the downturn was caused by fears in the financial markets of the “radical and collectivist” policies espoused by FDR. He tried repeatedly to inveigle Roosevelt into disavowing these policies in advance of the inauguration.

Hoover urged FDR to make a series of reassuring public statements. Among other things he should commit to keeping the U.S. on the gold standard and promise to balance the budget, something Hoover himself never achieved.

“I realize that if these declarations be made by the president-elect,” Hoover confided to one of his political allies, “he will have ratified the whole major program of the Republican Administration; that is, it means abandonment of 90% of the so-called new deal. But unless this is done, they run a grave danger of precipitating a complete financial debacle…unless, of course, such a debacle is part of the ‘new deal.'” In other words, Hoover was insisting that FDR abandon his own program and fall into line with a Republican program that had already failed.

As Inauguration Day approached and banks across the nation were shutting their doors, Hoover got more panicky, demanding that FDR join him in a joint policy statement on the banking crisis. Roosevelt’s response remained utterly consistent throughout the period, however: Hoover was President until March 4, and had all the authority he needed right up to that date to take any action he chose. FDR wouldn’t stand in his way, but it wasn’t his place to act jointly.

In fact, Hoover’s own aides were telling him the same thing. Days before the inauguration, Federal Reserve Gov. Eugene Meyer pressed him to

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declare a bank holiday: “You are the only one with the power to act. We are fiddling while Rome burns.” Hoover refused.

Far from refusing to lift a finger to relieve the Depression, FDR was working assiduously on the crisis in the days and weeks before taking office. His own Treasury staff-in-waiting were meeting around the clock with Hoover’s aides. Indeed, the bank holiday ultimately imposed by FDR had been designed by Hoover’s own banking officials. Hoover had weeks to put it into place and refused; FDR did so on his very first day in office.

The bank holiday succeeded spectacularly in stemming the bank crisis in the first days of the New Deal; Hoover, incensed that FDR got the credit, petulantly complained in his memoirs that he had been prevented from taking the same steps because of Roosevelt’s lack of “cooperation.”

Hoover would make a great modern Republican. “Look, if you just abandon all your principles and continue with my failed policies, bipartisanship will rule the day!” Of course, such a move would have made the modern FDR hugely popular with the David Brookses of the world, even if it would have done nothing for the country.

It would be nice if Obama took the right lessons from this history and didn’t fall into traps of bipartisanship myths, but that’s always been a weakness of his.

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