As we enter a new year, a new administration, and indeed a new era, the advice most given to Barack Obama is model your presidency after that of Franklin D. Roosevelt's. Time magazine photoshopped Obama into a cigarette-chomping, bespectacled Roosevelt for its November 25 cover, and columnists Paul Krugman and Joseph Nocera, both of the New York Times, expressed the hope that, in Nocera's words, we'll be seeing "the new FDR."
But if Obama goes down that path, sadly, he will fail. Trite but true: the times are very different. Broad public programs modeled on the New Deal can't work the way they did in the 1930s and '40s, because the economics of the situation have changed. More important, so has the rhetorical power of the presidency.
That doesn't mean Obama is headed for failure. Presidents design their office around what they know — former governors tend to see the position as a "chief executive of the 50 states"; former armed-services officers see it as more organized along military lines. So what does Obama know? Chicago, the American epicenter of political patronage.
In Chicago, the chief executive (the mayor) primarily directs money to other parts of the public sector. In that sense, though he was never mayor, Obama may see himself as the embodiment of "the Chicago way" — with the Windy City (and its mayor's office), for better or worse, as the model for how the federal government ought to work. (That may be particularly apt now, given both that we're in an era when the federal government is dispensing bailouts and how the upcoming stimulus packages are likely to end up being distributed.)
The FDR model of creating vast public-works projects is unattainable. Unlike Obama, Roosevelt didn't have to contend with an immense network of regulatory hurdles — bidding, environmental, and labor — that could take years to clear out of the way before he could launch his initiatives.
This means that, if Obama wants to inject cash and jobs into the economy quickly, he has two choices: he can help the states launch recovery projects already on the drawing boards. Or, he can funnel money to state and local governments that are on the verge of bankruptcy.
The second option shouldn't be underestimated. State and local government now provides around 15 percent of the jobs in America, and 2009 will likely see a number of public-sector employers going broke — most notably, in the state of California. So the federal government is eventually going to have to bail them out, just as it bailed out banks and the auto companies.
That won't make Obama another FDR, but given his Chicago model, it may be a task for which he's ideally suited. Nevertheless, even if he's successful at rescuing floundering state and local governments, Obama still won't have the power to do much to affect the overall national economy.
And that's not all that will be out of his reach. Despite his own considerable skills as a rhetorical leader, Obama can't possibly emulate FDR in mobilizing the nation toward a single sustained path, because the lines of communication are different.
Remember that FDR emerged in the early days of radio — the beginning of an era when new networks were creating the first live mass audiences in history. When Roosevelt gave a Fireside Chat, the listenership was huge, if only because there were so few other competing sources of information. And not only that: because the country under FDR was essentially sharing the same few media outlets, radio organized a common culture and a sense of national unity tailor-made for the Roosevelt approach — Big Government for big audiences.
Today, in a media universe comprising 200 cable outlets, thousands of radio stations, and, of course, the Internet, the president's microphone has been reduced to two cupped hands, if that. There is no more bully pulpit. More important, we're in an age of national atomization, where there's much less of a shared political culture. Even with Obama's talent for delivering inspiring speeches, far from everyone will be listening. The converted will hear him; the unconverted or the uninterested will tune him out.
Thanks to all the bailout and stimulus packages, federal power may be growing. But the Constitution was designed to make the presidency a weak office — especially in the area of domestic policy. Transforming a modern economy is beyond any president's reach. That's why Obama, finally, will need all the luck and good will he can muster. Through no fault of his own, he has raised expectations so high that it's hard to see how anyone could fulfill them.
To read the "Presidential Tote Board" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/blogs/toteboard. Steven Stark can be reached at email@example.com.