- The Washington Times - Friday, January 9, 2009



“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” So said Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his first Inaugural in 1933

Roosevelt tried anything and everything to get us out of the Depression, in some ways retarding progress. Our present leadership seems to think that approach for recession-fighting jim-dandy. But some will go so far and no further. They are not about to buy into FDR’s insight that recovery first required public confidence.

The philosophy instead seems to be that fear itself is the way out of this mess, and if you don’t believe it, listen to Joe Biden. The economy, the vice president-to-be told us a while back, is “absolutely tanking,” and if that didn’t make you shiver, he had more to say the other day. He told congressional leaders the hit on our prosperity was like the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “We’re at war,” he intoned.

Far less given to histrionics, President-elect Barack Obama actually quoted FDR’s line about fear during the campaign, even though he does not mind emphasizing that the economy could easily be on the road to something awful.

“It is clear,” he said recently, “that we have to act and we have to act now to address this crisis and break the momentum of the recession or the next few years could be dramatically worse.” Such remarks, not so objectionable in themselves, come on top of his repeatedly making things out to be much more frightening than they were in better days early in the campaign, and using the chilling word “Depression” in a speech or some other forum repeatedly.

Of course, he never specifically said we faced another Depression, and any number of commentators have pointed out it’s almost impossible we will see the utter devastation of that period - the 25 percent unemployment, for instance. But scary comparisons from other leaders, commentators and news reports are unending, as is the use of the word “crisis.”

On top of all this, some commentators talk as if the economy will never get back to where it was, that while we may return to something tolerable, we will never again bask in such sunshine as once we did and that in the end this may be good for us. We will be a heartier people.

OK, yes, I, too, have used the word “crisis” a few times, FDR himself wanted people to acknowledge reality, and no one should wish to kid the public that all we have here is a slight bump in the road. But while some have already been socked hard and more are sure to be similarly punished, and while it is possible something transformative is going on and changes are in the making, there are acute observers saying we will again be as well off as we were, and, in fact, better off.

To get there, though, consumers and businesses must have faith in the future, and policymakers must not be so prone to haste that they make waste. We must understand that despite the moment’s mess the free market is a powerful instrument for the public good, that we have extraordinary institutions, that we are in the final analysis an exceptional country, and that we can do this thing.

The need now is not to frighten the public into accepting whatever policy comes down the pike, but to preach as President Bush has preached that “anxiety can feed anxiety.” Mr. Obama has the gifts to deliver that message far more convincingly than Mr. Bush, has already done it, in fact, but should do it again. His Inaugural would be a good time.

Jay Ambrose is formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard News Service.

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