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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   January 2009

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Fear Itself

As Inauguration Day dawns, an echo of FDR.

Never having had the Desert Exposure soapbox before when a new president is about to be inaugurated, we're departing from our usual New Mexico-centric focus this month for some thoughts on this historic moment.

Besides, New Mexicans will play key roles in the incoming administration and in enacting its legislative agenda: Gov. Bill Richardson will be moving from Santa Fe to Washington to head the Department of Commerce. Sen. Jeff Bingaman will be a leader in shaping energy policy, and was recently named to replace departing Sen. Hillary Clinton on a Senate task force grappling with health-insurance reform. Newly elected Sen. Tom Udall and New Mexico's three new Democratic members of the House of Representatives will be part of the majority giving President Barack Obama an historic opportunity to deliver on the "change" he promised throughout his campaign.

That charismatic campaign led some hopeful observers to liken Obama to President John F. Kennedy. Since Obama's election, others have made the comparison to another Illinois politician who became president at the crux of a national crisis, Abraham Lincoln. Given the ever-deepening recession — inevitably described as the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression — the situation Obama confronts may more aptly be compared to that faced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt upon his first inauguration in 1932.

By fate or historical accident, current Federal Reserve Board chairman Ben Bernanke happens to be an expert on the Great Depression and is determined not to repeat the mistakes of policymakers in the 1930s. When Bernanke was teaching economics at Princeton in the 1990s, he advised Japanese officials not to be timid in confronting their own economic crisis at that time. As Wall Street Journal columnist Jon Hilsenrath recently pointed out, Bernanke is now in the position of trying to follow his own advice. It seems to us that the Fed chairman's prescription is also worth taking by the new president:

"Roosevelt's specific actions were, I think, less important than his willingness to be aggressive and to experiment," Bernanke wrote. "In short, to do whatever was necessary to get the country moving again."

In a timely new biography of FDR, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, our friend H.W. Brands recalls the 1932 inauguration. The new president assailed the "unscrupulous money changers" of Wall Street in terms that could be transplanted wholesale to Obama's inaugural address this month:

"Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply," Roosevelt said. "Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence."

FDR might as well have been describing today's executives of Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

"The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization," Roosevelt thundered. "We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths."

In proposing a record-breaking stimulus package, Obama has already been more specific than his predecessor was in 1932 in detailing how he plans to "restore that temple." Though the devil may be in the details, the most important factor in confronting the current economic crisis could be Obama's willingness, as Bernanke said of FDR, to do whatever is necessary to get the country moving again.

President Obama needs to tune out those who, having brought the nation to the brink by reckless lack of economic regulation, now would rather wring their hands and preach about "moral hazard" than fix things. Worries about "creeping socialism" ring hollow when you're out of work and can't feed your family. Unfettered capitalism, Wall Street style, has failed, and the clock is ticking on the search for an antidote to the poison it has left in the American system.

Writing in The New York Times, columnist Ben Stein — a Republican, whose father was chief economic adviser to two GOP presidents — recently warned, "This is not the time for timidity by government. We can leave to researchers the discussion of who is ideologically purest. For now, real people need real help. Depressions are miserable, grinding days of fear. The time to stop them from coming is now."

Better remembered today than FDR's railing against Wall Street is his own evocation of "fear." As Brands describes the moment on the inauguration stand, outgoing President Herbert Hoover "was standing next to Roosevelt, and his dour expression became a grimace as he anticipated yet another attack on his administration. But Roosevelt proceeded with words of encouragement and hope."

We can hope to hear something of the same this Jan. 20 from President Obama, no mean orator himself. "This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper," the new president told America in 1932. "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."

No more than in 1932, Americans have not lost their resourcefulness, enterprising spirit or willingness to work hard. American workers far from Wall Street did not suddenly become less productive on the day after the reckless decision last fall to let Lehman Brothers fail. The auto executives whose decades of arrogance and shortsightedness led them to the brink of bankruptcy and pleading for bailouts don't actually build the cars, after all. And it wasn't the guys wielding hammers up on rooftops, building new homes, who got us into the mortgage mess that was the first economic domino to topple.

No, all that we have lost is confidence. Understandably shaken by the greed and ineptitude of those in charge of our economic institutions, ill-served by eight years of an administration dedicated to enriching the few rather than protecting the many, we've replaced the American can-do spirit with a bunker mentality.

"There is a new feeling in the land — fear," wrote Times columnist Stein, "on a scale that I have never experienced. Chilling, right-to-the-bone fear. Fear that there is no bottom to our problems, that we got into this mess in some mysterious way we don't understand, and that no one knows how to get out of it."

Is it too much to expect a new president to lift an entire nation out of that fear? As the economic picture has continued to darken since the election, many have joked that Obama ought to demand a recount — so he could dump this mess on somebody else. Thankfully, he seems if anything to welcome the challenge.

We can't expect the economy to turn around on Inauguration Day. Nor will Jan. 20 see instant success in Afghanistan or the last American soldier extricated from the morass in Iraq. Health-care reform won't happen overnight, and the challenges of sustainable energy and global warming will still be formidable when we wake up the next morning.

But maybe, just maybe, America can start to get its groove back when Barack Obama takes the oath of office on Jan. 20. Whether you voted for him or for someone else, you can make a vote of confidence in your country, starting on Inauguration Day. Refuse to be afraid. Vow instead, as millions of Americans did on Election Day, "Yes we can!"

Is it too much to hope that Barack Obama might be our era's Franklin Delano Roosevelt? In the darkness before the dawn where America now stands, we dare hope for no less.

David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.



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