Jeff Jacoby

Things have been worse

By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / March 22, 2009
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'WHEN the stock market crashed," Joe Biden told Katie Couric in a CBS interview last fall, "Franklin Roosevelt got on the television and didn't just talk about the princes of greed. He said, 'Look, here's what happened.' " Katie didn't embarrass her guest by pointing out that there were no TV broadcasts when Wall Street crashed in 1929 and that the president at the time was Herbert Hoover - though she would surely have pounced had Sarah Palin committed such a howler.

Last week the vice president brought up FDR again, asserting that President Obama "has inherited the most difficult first 100 days of any president, I would argue, including Franklin Roosevelt."

That may have generated quizzical looks, for Biden continued: "Let me explain what I mean by that. It was clear the problem Roosevelt inherited. This is a more complicated economic [problem]. We've never, ever been here before - here or in the world. Never, ever been here before."

If nothing else, Biden's comment was at odds with the administration's new line on the economy: Whereas last month the president said we were in a "crisis as deep and as dire as any since the Great Depression," now he declares that things are "not as bad as we think they are." Apparently Biden didn't get the memo to stop bad-mouthing the economy.

Talking points aside, does Biden's claim have merit? Is Obama faced with grimmer, more formidable conditions than any incoming president has ever known?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this month that unemployment has reached 8.1 percent for the first time since 1983. When Roosevelt took the oath of office on March 4, 1933, unemployment stood at more than 25 percent. "Those fortunate enough to have work," historian Anthony Badger writes, "had seen their income fall by a third in three years. Farmers had been crushed by catastrophic price falls, drought, and debt. A thousand homeowners a day were losing their homes."

Since the beginning of 2008, 42 US banks have failed. But as FDR came to power, banks were failing by the thousands, wiping out the life's savings of countless families. Tens of thousands of other businesses had also gone under, turning once-bustling city centers into near-ghost towns. Between 1929 and Roosevelt's inauguration, national income had been cut in half; industrial output had plummeted just as much.

This recession is painful. American households have lost 18 percent of their wealth, and millions fear for their jobs. No one knows what the next few years will bring. But this much is clear: Conditions today are not nearly as desperate as they were in 1933, a reality for which all Americans, including their vice president, should be grateful.

Even apart from FDR, Obama is hardly the first president to take office amid bleak or threatening circumstances. When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, he inherited a "misery index" of 19.5 percent - 12 percent inflation plus 7.5 percent unemployment. Mortgage rates were at 15 percent and climbing; the prime rate had reached 20 percent. Today inflation is at one-half of 1 percent, while mortgage rates are at historic lows. Biden may insist that "we've never, ever been here before." The data say otherwise.

And what of non-economic challenges new presidents have had to confront? When Harry Truman succeeded FDR in 1945, the United States was fighting a world war on multiple fronts. The Battle of Berlin raged in Europe; B-29 bombers were pounding Tokyo. Nearly 200,000 American lives had already been lost. Truman was shocked to discover how little Roosevelt had shared with him - including the imminent development of the atomic bomb. No wonder he felt as if "the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me."

But even Truman had it easy next to Abraham Lincoln, whose election had prompted most of the South to secede from the Union. For his inauguration, the 16th president had to enter Washington in disguise, so serious were the threats to his life. Five weeks into his presidency, Confederate batteries attacked Fort Sumter, launching the Civil War - the worst and bloodiest calamity in American history.

These are not the worst of times. Americans have come through graver crises. Biden should be focused on getting through this one, not on trying to paint it as the most daunting we've ever faced.

Jeff Jaocby can be reached at

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