Joy Behar Was Right

The co-hostess of The View faulted Obama for failing to tell the country where he was leading us. Jeff Shesol on what the president could learn from FDR about vision.

07.29.10 10:41 PM ET

Kennedy talked about a missile gap. Johnson had a credibility gap. President Obama, it appears, has a narrative gap—wide enough to be seen from The View.

“Where, on your side, is the narrative?” Joy Behar asked Obama on Thursday’s show. It’s a question he’s been getting a lot lately. In a recent column, Maureen Dowd wondered what has happened to Obama’s “story line,” and how he’s managed to “ lose control of his own narrative.” Bob Shrum, among others, has urged Obama to pull his policies and goals and basic beliefs together into a single “framework” that’s compelling enough to “ hold the nation’s attention”—at least until the midterm elections.

The “narrative” narrative is the sort of meta-discussion that grips the capital periodically, provoking irritation or, more likely, total indifference in the rest of the country. But Behar’s question on The View suggests that this topic’s got traction outside the echo chamber. Obama laughed it off yesterday, but one hopes he’s taking the matter seriously. One of his predecessors, Franklin D. Roosevelt, certainly did at a similar point in his first term, and it helped revive his political fortunes.

In the months before the 1934 midterms, Roosevelt seemed to be heading for a rebuke at the polls. 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, 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 adviser. 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. The Democratic National Committee said the party would be lucky to hold its losses under 50 seats in the House.

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 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.

What defines Obama’s America? Absent a clear answer, Obama has, in effect, asked the country to infer his goals by inductive reasoning.

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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 catchphrase 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.