07.27.10

Obama vs. FDR

Heading into his first midterm, Roosevelt, too, faced an ailing economy and critics blasting him as a socialist. Jeff Shesol on how he beat the odds—and what Obama needs to tell America now.

Let’s stipulate that Barack Obama is fed up with Franklin D. Roosevelt.

At the very least, he’s probably had it with people who compare him with Roosevelt. At the time of his inauguration, he let reporters know he was reading up on FDR’s Hundred Days, that rush of legislation that transformed the country. This was probably a mistake. As a general rule, it’s best not to invite comparison to the most successful president of the 20th Century. It may be better to tee yourself up against, say, Harding. But the Roosevelt analogy—whether it concerns Obama’s legislative program or his conflict with the conservative Supreme Court—has often been too instructive to ignore.

And so it is again. At a similar point in his presidency—in the months before the 1934 midterm elections—FDR seemed to be heading for a rebuke at the polls. Officials at the Democratic National Committee said the party would be lucky to hold its losses under 50 seats in the House. President Obama, I think, would do well to consider how FDR turned the conventional wisdom on its head that year. The lessons have significance well beyond this November.

The lag between signing bills and seeing results is, politically, a treacherous gap.

In the summer of 1934, the leading columnist for the New York Times, Arthur Krock, summed up FDR’s situation with two words: TROUBLES AWAIT. “Business is still ailing,” Krock noted. “The hoped-for lift has not yet come.” Though the economy had begun growing again, the recovery was not yet a fact of life for most Americans. Unemployment remained shockingly high: nearly 20 percent of the workforce. “If there are immediate solutions,” Krock continued, Roosevelt’s “counselors do not know them.” The New Deal seemed in many ways a spent force, and FDR had no big, new initiatives to replace it.

As Roosevelt’s popularity waned, his opponents pounced. “We have been under very heavy bombardment,” FDR told an outside advisor. Conservatives, he said, were “shrieking to high heaven,” attacking the New Deal as “state socialism.” On the left, Roosevelt’s critics, muttering “betrayal,” denounced the big-business bent of the New Deal and its supposed indifference to workers and consumers. The national spirit of shared sacrifice, so powerful at the start of the administration, was clearly expiring.

Then, in November 1934, Roosevelt defied gravity.

Voters gave Democrats three quarters of the Senate—the widest margin ever in that chamber—and nine more seats in the House. The election—widely and rightly portrayed as Roosevelt’s victory, though he did not appear on the ballot—obliterated the truism that in off-year elections, the president’s party inevitably lost seats. FDR emerged, in the view of the New York Times, with “the greatest power that has ever been given to a Chief Executive.”

Nothing that President Obama says or does is going to make history repeat itself this fall. Though FDR’s approval ratings were sinking in 1934, they remained higher than Obama’s are today; and the recovery, while halting, was strong enough for Roosevelt to boast about it during the campaign. Obama has neither of these advantages. Even so, there’s a lot he can learn from Roosevelt’s midterm triumph. One of the main reasons FDR prevailed—then and thereafter—was his ability to paint a clear, consistent picture of the kind of country he wanted America to be, the kind of country we needed to be in the industrial era.

This was not a campaign-year construction; it was a worldview. It not only predated the New Deal, but determined its shape. Roosevelt’s philosophy was grounded in security—“adequate protection against the vicissitudes of modern life,” as he put it—and “wider opportunity for the average man.” He spoke of “government that would not enslave the human spirit, but free it and nourish it throughout the generations.” In this way, FDR left little question about the trajectory of the New Deal. Many who had doubts about his policies believed, all the same, in his basic purposes. That November, voters gave him more time and more power—in the form of a larger congressional majority—to succeed.

President Obama, at this point, would probably like to buy himself a little time. The lag between signing bills and seeing results is, politically, a treacherous gap. If Obama is less likely to get the benefit of the doubt than Roosevelt was, it’s due in part to his failure to convey his core beliefs, over and above any particular piece of legislation.

In his inaugural address, President Obama spoke of a “new era of responsibility,” but soon dropped the idea in favor of another unifying theme (wrapped in a laundry list, inside a mixed metaphor): a “new foundation… built upon five pillars that will grow our economy.” The pillars—financial reform, education, clean energy, health care, deficit reduction—tell us a lot about his priorities, but little about his basic objectives. Where does this all lead? What defines Obama’s America? Absent a clear answer, Obama has, in effect, asked the country to infer his goals by inductive reasoning—to assume that on the basis of policies A, B and C, Barack Obama seeks X, Y, and Z.

The New Deal wasn’t just a catch-phrase or a legislative agenda. It was an animating idea—an organizing principle for the work of a presidency. Right now, Obama has an impressive set of accomplishments in search of a central proposition. It may be too late to pull off an upset in the midterms, but he can still give shape to this new era—in our collective imagination and in actual fact. Or, as Roosevelt put it, “to make the right path clear, [and] to tread that path.”

Jeff Shesol is the author of Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court. He is also a founding partner of West Wing Writers, a speechwriting and strategy firm and the author of Mutual Contempt. From 1998 to 2001, Shesol served as a speechwriter to President Bill Clinton. A Rhodes Scholar, he holds degrees in history from Oxford and Brown universities. His comic strip, Thatch, appeared daily in more than 150 newspapers from 1994-1998.