History and Crisis

It has long been Barack Obama's habit, here at home, to compare our current economic crisis to the Great Depression. Back in October, during a debate with John McCain, Obama said, "We are in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression." Speaking at Columbia University last month, Paul Volcker, chair of the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, went further, saying, "I don't remember any time, maybe even the Great Depression, when things went down quite so fast."

So it's been interesting this week to hear how Obama's historical references change as he reaches out to Europeans at the London G-20 meeting. At his press conference with Gordon Brown yesterday, Obama compared the recession not to the 1930s but to the late 1940s. "All of us here in London have a responsibility to act with a sense of urgency," he said. "Make no mistake: We are facing the most severe economic crisis since World War II."

The comparison to World War II is both sensitive and strategic. It is sensitive because it acknowledges a key difference in the American and European experiences of the 20th century; Europe was left completely devastated, physically and emotionally, by the ravages of Nazism, while the United States soared to the height of its power. And strategic because the World War II example hearkens back to a time of internationally recognized American moral leadership, when the Marshall Plan and Berlin air lift demonstrated to the world the United States' commitment to human rights.

Could George W. Bush have pulled this off? It never would have occurred to him.

cross-posted at TAPPED

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