An Unclear Historical Analogy

By February 7, 2011Economy

Your correspondent, a speechwriter in various stages of his career, was puzzled by the President’s closing remarks in his speech at the Chamber of Commerce this morning:

Yes, we’ll have some disagreements. Yes, we’ll see things differently at times. But we’re all Americans, and that spirit of patriotism and that sense of mutual regard and common obligation, that has carried through far harder times than the ones we’ve just been through. Now I’m reminded toward the end of the 1930s, amidst the Depression, the looming prospect of war, FDR, President Roosevelt, realized he would need to form a new partnership with business, if we were going to become what he would later call the Arsenal of Democracy. As you can imagine, the relationship between the President and business leaders during the course of the Depression had been rocky at times, had grown somewhat fractured by the New Deal, so Roosevelt reached out to businesses, and business leaders answered the call to serve their country. After years of working at cross-purposes, the result was one of the most productive collaborations between public and private sectors in American history. Some, like the head of GM hadn’t previously known the President and if anything had seen him as an adversary. But he gathered his family, and he explained that he was going to head up what would become the War Production Board. And he said to his family, “This country has been good to me, and I want to pay it back.” I want to pay it back.

And in the years that followed, automobile factories converted to making planes and tanks, and corset factories made grenade belts, a toy company made compasses, a pinball machine maker turned out shells. 1941 would see the greatest expansion of manufacturing in the history of America, and not only did this help us win the war, it led to millions of new jobs and helped produce the great American middle class. So we have faced hard times before. We have faced moments of tumult and moments of change, and we know what to do. We know how to succeed. We are Americans and as we have done throughout history, I have every confidence that once again we will rise to this occasion, that we can come together, we can adapt, we can thrive in this changing economy. And need to look no further than the innovative companies in this room. We can harness your potential and the potential of your people across this country, there’s no stopping us.

This is confusing. Is President Obama supposed to be FDR in this analogy? If so, is he hinting he’s abandoning the modern-day equivalents of the National Recovery Administration and Wagner Act unionization for a more cooperative approach toward business akin to WWII industrial policy?

If the President is merely evoking a great national challenge, what challenge is that? President Carter at least explicitly called the energy crisis the moral equivalent of war. Is the President now telling us recovery from the recession is the moral equivalent of war? 

If the message was, “We’re all in this together,” than the President reached too far for the analogy. The moral equivalent of war is war. The economic challenges we face are many and serious, but they are not the existential threat of WWII.

UPDATE (1:30 p.m.): The War Production Board is NOT a good analogy to use when discussing government-business cooperation. From the Oklahoma Historical Society:

During World War II, the War Production Board (WPB) was granted supreme authority to direct procurement of materials and industrial production programs. Established by Executive Order 9024 on January 16, 1942, the WPB replaced the Supply Priorities and Allocation Board as well as the Office of Production Management. The national WPB constituted the chair (Donald M. Nelson, 1942 44; Julius A. Krug, 1944 45) appointed by the president, the secretaries of war, navy, and agriculture, the federal loan administrator, lieutenant general in charge of war department production, administrator of the office of price administration, chair of the board of economic warfare, and special assistant to the president who supervised the defense aid program. The board created advisory, policy-making, and progress-reporting divisions.

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