Beware of historical analogies. When Barack Obama took office, pundits were comparing the economic crisis he faced to the Great Depression. Naturally, the new liberal president would become another FDR; one magazine even portrayed him waving confidently from an open car, top hat on his head and cigarette holder in his teeth.
The image led to outsize expectations and absurd fears. Leftists called for Obama to nationalize the big banks, endorse a single-payer health-care system, and reverse every major policy of his miserable predecessor. Right-wingers claimed the president was steering the nation toward socialism, just like Roosevelt, that traitor to his class.
While Republican presidents rarely practiced what they preached, they did benefit from the zeal and energy of a mass movement.
Neither another Depression nor another New Deal has come to pass. The millions of Americans who are suffering are primarily working-class people, who face enduring peril in an economy structured to benefit those with a good education, decent health insurance, and a low-interest mortgage. Most middle-class Americans have kept their jobs, their homes, and their 401(k)s. So the U.S. has avoided the kind of systemic collapse that occurred in the 1930s. But, without one, Obama will not become a second FDR.
There is another reason why Obama has not yet ushered America into a new progressive era. His 2008 campaign, remarkable as it was, did not revive the grassroots left. Unions do what they can, but most still struggle to survive. And the fragmented nature of the progressive blogs, NGOs, and single-issue lobbies cannot generate the visibility or influence of a growing insurgency.
• More Daily Beast contributors on Obama’s election anniversaryWithout a big push from the left, the conservative assumptions that have kept the nation in thrall for the past three decades still hold sway: “Big” government is bad, except when it funds those public workers who carry weapons, and “the people” are a self-reliant, traditionalist bunch who refuse to pay higher taxes. While Republican presidents rarely practiced what they preached, they did benefit from the zeal and energy of a mass movement. Despite the Bush debacle, that spirit remains essentially intact, fueled by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin.
Eugene Debs, that genuine socialist who made a habit of running for president a century ago, liked to warn his audiences not to depend on political leaders: “If I could lead you into the promised land, I could lead you right out again.” Without pressure from the CIO and the Popular Front, from farmers angry about low crop prices and elderly Americans who demanded a government pension, Roosevelt may have been a one-term president and would surely have been a less liberal one. As the erstwhile community organizer in the White House surely knows, even the most skillful and charismatic president cannot substitute for a movement.
Michael Kazin’s most recent book is A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is the co-editor of Dissent .