Thursday, November 26, 2009

Should Presidents Use Thanksgiving Proclamations to Advocate Their Policies?

Do We Need More (or less) FDR?

Over at the Nation, John Nichols, is criticizing the tone and content of President Obama's Thanksgiving proclamation, calling for "another helping of FDR." According to Nichols, FDR departed from George Washington's example and used the proclamations as a platform to defend his policy initiatives. Nichols thinks this is a good thing and that Obama should do the same.
Nichols quotes some of FDR's proclamations at length.

For instance, FDR's 1933 proclamation included the following:

"May we be grateful for the passing of dark days; for the new spirit of dependence one on another; for the closer unity of all parts of our wide land; for the greater friendship between employers and those who toil."

Moreover, his 1934 proclamation included the following:

"During the past year we have been given courage and fortitude to meet the problems which have confronted us in our national life. Our sense of social justice has deepened. We have been given vision to make new provisions for human welfare and happiness, and in a spirit of mutual helpfulness we have cooperated to translate vision into reality,"

Nichols criticizes Obama for being like Washington and George W. Bush and using the proclamation to emphasize themes that all Americans can endorse, regardless of party affiliation.

I respectfully disagree with Nichols.

1. Roosevelt was obviously referring to his economic recovery package, particularly the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), passed in the summer of 1933. The plan fostered "unity," "dependence," and "social justice" by coercively requiring members of more than 500 different industries to fix prices and adopt other practices, including minimum wages, that disproportionately raised the costs of small businesses and thus fostered the exercise of market power by large entenched firms. The NIRA also required participating firms to bargain collectively with labor cartels known as unions, thereby further enhancing wages above the market level and further disadvantaging small business and racial minorities.

The Supreme Court unanimously declared the NIRA unconstitutional in 1935, and economists from both sides of the spectrum, including the Chair of President Obama's Council of Economic advisors, Christina Roemer, a William and Mary alumna, have argued that the NIRA significantly slowed economic recovery and thus exacerbated the misery caused by the great Depression. Empirical tests have confirmed this result.

The Supreme Court also struck down the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the Bituminous Coal Act, provisions that had similar price-raising, and recovery-stalling, effects.

In short, FDR's unconstitutional economic recovery plan was nothing to celebrate, and it's unfortunate to say the least that he enshrined arguments, albeit somewhat indirectly, for his plan in his Thanksgiving proclamation. Such proclamations should withstand the test of time and speak to timeless values. Roosevelt's arguments for his plan do not pass this test.

2. Some traditions and days should be above politics. Presidents should follow in George Washington's footsteps and use such proclamations to celebrate that which brings us together, not what divides us. Many small businessmen and racial minorities were anything but thankful for President Roosevelt's policies. Kudos to President Obama for taking the right approach here.