- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009



President-elect Barack Obama is correct to give the economy his full focus as he enters office. He’s correct, even if it comes at the expense of immediate action on other campaign promises.

If some core supporters balk, there is no question where the majority of Americans are. The economy comes first. This is not new, the economy is not just this president’s - it is the presidency’s - predominant issue.

While this recession with its financial sector epicenter appears unlike any since the Depression, the public’s reaction to it is commonplace. The American people are wholly unforgiving of economic failure. There can be debate over the policies for addressing the current recession, but there is none over its politics. Regardless that the recession began in George W. Bush’s presidency, once inaugurated, Mr. Obama will be responsible for its solution.

Since Franklin Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal, there has been a diminishing electoral laxity for presidents presiding over economic downturns.

It is safe to say FDR himself would no longer have the latitude he received 70 years ago. As all remember, the Depression started on Herbert Hoover’s watch and he and Republicans paid the electoral price in the landslides of 1930, 1932, 1934 and 1936. However, it is frequently overlooked that the Depression did not end with Hoover’s exit - or with even with Roosevelt’ssecond Inauguration.

America began 1929 with a gross domestic product (GDP) of $103.6 billion. With October’s crash, it spiraled down, bottoming out at $56.4 billion - almost a 50 percent drop - in 1933 as FDR took office. However by Jan. 1, 1940, the year in which FDR would embark on re-election to an unprecedented third term, America’s GDP was only $101.4 billion, still below 1929’s level. Economic downturns, now measured in months, then lasted for years.

While the economy was not changing in the 1930s, the government was. When the Depression finally ended, the government’s new role, and the public’s acceptance of it, had irrevocably altered. Moving to a decidedly nontraditional interventionist stance, as witnessed by the Supreme Court’s opposition to several New Deal programs, the government implicitly accepted responsibility for prosperity.

For the electorate, America’s boom during the 1950s and 1960s ended their tolerance for economic downturns. The evidence for this public change is stark. Since William Howard Taft failed to get re-elected in 1912, only four presidents seeking re-election have failed: Hoover, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush the elder. Each had a recession within at least a year of his re-election bid.

The reverse is equally clear. Eight presidents have won re-election during that time. Of the eight, only Truman overcame a recession within a year of re-election.

The electorate’s impatience with economic underachievement is not only clear, it’s strengthening. Three of the failed presidential re-election bids occurred in the last 32 years. Regardless of the federal government’s limited ability to control the nation’s economic fortunes - a $3 trillion budget versus a $14 trillion economy last year - it has assumed a growing responsibility for it. And while the responsibility broadly rests with the government, it is narrowly focused on the president. Reworking Truman’s famous desk sign - to the American public, “the bucks are expected to start here.”

Since Truman’s time, America’s so-called “Greatest Generation,” has given way to the Entitlement Generation. Ever fewer Americans remember the Depression and fewer still would now tolerate it stoically. Those who would have been replaced by a generation unfamiliar with a time without federal entitlements.

Anyone under age 74 has never even lived in a pre-Social Security nation. And thanks to America’s post-World War II economic performance, they have never known national economic hardship.

Ours is now a nation that will not long entertain a history lesson as to when an economic downturn began. They are only interested in its conclusion. The federal government has made a tacit commitment with the electorate for prosperity and, in turn, the electorate has made its contract for it increasingly explicit with the president.

Coupled with this general trend is today’s particular one. Many baby boomers, unacquainted with national economic hardship, are now experiencing it for the first, and at the worst, time. From retirement’s threshold, they see waves of bad news crashing over their expectations - investment losses, falling home values, and even job and home losses. Weaned on instant gratification, they now face the ultimate in delayed gratification: a postponed or much less prosperous retirement.

Mr. Obama is right to pay heed to the most serious issue a president faces and with the least patient of generations called on to endure it.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001-04 and as a congressional staff member from 1987-2000.

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