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Will History Repeat Itself?—A Commentary by Heather Gerken

The following commentary was posted on The Huffington Post on October 29, 2009.

Reflections On The 80-Year Anniversary Of The Stock Market Crash Of 1929; Will History Repeat Itself?
By Heather Gerken

Rahm Emanuel summed up the most important lesson of the Crash of 1929: "never let a serious crisis go to waste."

The reason is simple. Policy depends on politics, and our democracy is not well suited to getting a lot done quickly. A year ago, many thought that the Obama administration would be able to pass any legislation it wanted because it had so many energized supporters and such an impressive grassroots network. That was a mistake. Electioneering is different from governing. Note, for instance, how hard it's been to convert 'Obama for America' into an equally muscular 'Organizing for America'. Elections are the rare moments when voters pay attention; the drama of the race focuses people's attention on the issues, and candidates provide human stand-ins for abstract policy proposals.

When candidates turn to the workaday project of governing, voters tend to fall away. They stop organizing, they stop volunteering . . . they even stop paying attention. That's a problem if you want to pass something in Washington, where killing legislation is perhaps the ugliest form of blood sport, if only because it's so easy to do.

The New Deal 1.0 got passed because voters stayed engaged even after Roosevelt moved from campaigning to governing. If that were just because of Roosevelt's personal appeal, then we might think that the charismatic Obama can match his achievements. But the architects of the New Deal 1.0 had a good deal more than a charismatic president. They had the Great Depression. Depressions involve terrible human costs, which is precisely why they have such a powerful ability to concentrate the electorate's mind. The New Dealers used voters' hunger for change to push through massive reform. They didn't let the crisis go to waste. The question is whether historians will be able to say the same thing of the Obama administration.

Roosevelt Institute Braintruster Heather Gerken is the J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law at Yale Law School.