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Davis, California

Friday, October 22, 2021

Column: 2009 or 1929?

The Republican Party has been stoutest in it criticism of President Obama’s stimulus and the size of government among other things. The Obama administration is belatedly trying to portray the Republicans as the party of “No.” Well, it turns out looking at history, they know a thing or two about how bloated government and spending failed to lift the U.S. from the Great Depression.

The economic stagnation and massive joblessness $800-plus billion later and 18 months into his presidency, has revved up public despair that plays in Republicans’ favor. One name comes to mind: Republican President Herbert Hoover. Too many things happen to, for lack of a better nomenclature, provide the same narrative; only this time perfectly backward.

The year was 1929; then it was Obama in 2009. Forget the 9s. The presidency and both houses on Capitol Hill were Republican-controlled. Hoover was essentially a free market or pro-business guy, a fiscal conservative. He also tried to rule on consensus among business, unions and all stakeholders. Didn’t work. He tried passing laws like the Agricultural Marketing Act, Hawley-Smoot Tariff and asked Congress for $423 million for public works programs to put Americans to work and alleviate the suffering. Does “shovel-ready jobs” come to mind, anybody? Obama in his first stimulus and his recent $50 billion infrastructure proposal touted that.

In Hoover’s case the initial 423 million was too small to affect the economy significantly. By the time the Stock Market crashed and there was a cascading effect on the global economy, Hoover passed his own variation of the modern-day Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) called the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC). It was enormous, budgeting $ 1.5 billion just for public works. Yup, this was another Wall Street-like bail out of the big banks. And again, it was both small and failed to engender the type of recovery that could lift the country out of the Great Depression. And even then it was not all spent. Does any this sound familiar?

This was not the days of cyber globalization and 24-hour news networks, but cynicism was not exactly absent in such dire times of universal despair among Americans. The strength of despair did not need sound bites or edited pictures to pervade the country. It was happening to you and your neighbor. Americans actually starved and queued for food and basic needs. There was little relief and no recovery. People started calling the burgeoning shanty towns “Hoovervilles.” War veterans took their case to Washington in protest of bonus owed them and built a tent city where Hoover could see them from the White House. Hoover charged the D.C. police to evict the eyesore caused by what was labeled the “Bonus Army,” but the veterans resisted. After some violence and continued stalemate the U.S. Army’s Third Calvary under General MacArthur had the onus of doing what most historians think was the final knell on Hoover’s presidency-the violent removal of the vets.

Now, let’s talk Barack Obama and the current crop of Republicans. Again the last digits rhyme. Just like Obama and the Democratic Party face midterms in 2010, Hoover did in 1930. Without prejudice, let me state that history has a nasty habit of repeating itself. On Hoover’s watch, the Democratic Party captured Congress and made significant grabs in the Senate. If polls are crystal balls, you make that call.

If the Republicans take over Congress and almost do so for Senate, it will not be because their “pledge” is a superior agenda for the country. It will be protest votes fuelled by the anti-incumbency wave sweeping the country. I don’t want to sound like I am lavishing credit on some conservative think tank with Carl Rove and others angling themselves strategically enough to capitalize on the ill-fortunes of the Obama presidency.

By just saying no to “big spending, big government,” the Republicans may just have mirrored history to know what works and what doesn’t under the circumstances. Hollering ‘fiscal responsibility’ at a time when HUGE sums of money should be injected into the economy, absent the normal federal bureaucracy, is going to thwart a deficit-ridden government from taking the steps needed to keep us out of this mess. Messaging is simple and their (Republicans) job is cut out for them.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration could have pulled this off had they treated the jobs and the economy or stimulus for that matter as the ONLY item on their laundry list. But stimulus was ticked off, while they went on to health care and a series of other otherwise, debatably, plausible legislation. But who cares? On Main Street it’s job, jobs, jobs. Let’s just say Republicans learned from their mistakes. They wrote the book on stimulus.

FAYIA SELLU can be reached at fmsellu@ucdavis.edu.

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