During the BP (NYSE:BP) Deepwater Horizon oil spill on April 20, the American government deployed 17,500 National Guard troops to respond to the environmental crisis. Over 484 miles of shoreline were impacted, and 81,181 square miles of Gulf of Mexico waters were closed to fishing. When the government steps in, things get done, but many are left wondering just how much the government should intervene–and if it even works.
Cleveland's Railroad Dilemma
Workers at Chicago's Pullman Palace Car Company walked out one spring day in 1894 in protest of smaller wages. The American Railway Union supported the workers and announced that, after negotiations failed, no trains that had Pullman cars would be operated. President Grover Cleveland became involved in the dispute when routes beyond Chicago were disrupted.
He deployed military soldiers to force the protesters to return to work, claiming that because the U.S. mail service had been disrupted, he had the constitutional right to do so. More than 30 people died in the violence between those on strike and the military, garnering sympathy from the public for the labor activists.
Roosevelt's New Deal
When former President Franklin D. Roosevelt replaced his predecessor Herbert Hoover in 1933, the Great Depression had taken a firm, relentless grip on the nation. In his inaugural address, Roosevelt famously said, "So, first of all, 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."
The president unveiled his New Deal plan, which involved creating government programs that put people to work in a variety of fields, like building large-scale infrastructure. The New Deal was credited with reinvigorating the economy and was widely popular, and Roosevelt was re-elected for another term. (Read "What Caused the Great Depression?" to find out more.)
Truman and the Steel Industry
After contract negotiations between the United Steel Workers and steel producers deteriorated in 1952, former president Harry Truman seized control of the steel industry in an effort to avoid a strike while the Korean War continued. The move was highly controversial, according to the Miller Center of Public Affairs, 43% of those polled said they did not support the high level of government intervention in the matter.
The U.S. Supreme Court found Truman's initiative to be unconstitutional; the steel industry was again a private one, and steelworkers promptly went on strike for 53 days. An editorial in Life magazine from April, 1952, reads, "He showed outrageous partiality in a serious industrial dispute, and he gave his own constitutional powers a dangerous and quite unnecessary stretching."
Nixon's Oil Crisis
Between 1971-1973, former president Richard Nixon imposed the New Economic Policy, which, for a 90-day period, would freeze wages and prices in an effort to combat inflation. Although it looked like the move had a stabilizing effect, inflation again became a threat once the controls were relaxed. Nixon again imposed the controls, in part because of the OPEC oil embargo, but this time it didn't work.
In The Commanding Heights, Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw write, "Ranchers stopped shipping their cattle to the market, farmers drowned their chickens, and consumers emptied the shelves of supermarkets." Although Nixon resigned just four months later, price controls on oil continued, and the U.S. began to try to free itself of dependence on foreign oil resources by increasing domestic exploration. It's the 1970s, and the stock market is a mess. It loses 40% in an 18-month period, and for close to a decade few people want anything to do with stocks.
While it's tough to say whether government intervention is always a good thing, it's easier to say this: Many a president has blundered in their method of intervening in the private sphere. But there is an expectation for the president, whoever he or she may be, to act in some way when the country is in dire straits. But the often exuberant way in which they (and the government) act make it impossible to predict what the outcome may be.