FDR On The Comeback Trail

I am sure most of you have seen the cover of the most recent Time magazine which portrays President-Elect Obama in a classic FDR photo. It seems everyone now agrees that Obama needs to learn lessons from FDR. Richard Cohen, while not getting his history exactly right (especially on Lincoln), writes:

In his recent "60 Minutes" interview, Obama paid homage to Roosevelt as well as Lincoln. The question, though, is not which president he most admires but which president he most resembles. If it is Lincoln, then we have a problem. Lincoln had one overriding goal and that was to reunite the Union. It was a massive undertaking, but he knew just how to do it: Find a commanding general who would fight and pour on the troops. This, he suggested, was going to be a bloody war that he would see through to the end.

That does not really tell us a lot about how FDR did it, imo. My very first post at Talk Left in the summer of 2006 was titled What Obama Needs To Learn From Richard Hofstadter, FDR and Lincoln. It is a piece I am very proud of and will quote at length on the flip:

To conclude this piece, I want to discuss one overlooked insight of Hofstadter that is highlighted and yet curiously devalued by Professor Wilentz. To me it holds one of the central principles of a triumphant liberalism, one that even today's conservatives can not challenge:

[quoting historian Sean Wilentz] The Age of Reform's greatest achievement, often overlooked, is in its reappraisal of the New Deal, reviving and reinforcing the more positive passages in The American Political Tradition. Whereas most historians (and many New Dealers) saw Roosevelt's reforms as a continuation of Populism and Progressivism, Hofstadter affirmed the New Deal as a sharp break with the past. The old sentimental, quixotic, and self-deluding forays against capitalism gave way to Keynesian policy and the provision of social welfare. Nineteenth-century individualism and anti-monopolism fell before a fuller appreciation of the inevitable size and scope of American business. Cities and urban life, including the party political machines, which had been the bane of Jeffersonian liberalism, became an accepted, even vaunted element in the New Deal coalition. Under FDR, in short, American liberalism came of age.

Following the long-term abandonment, at least philosophically, of New Deal liberalism by both major political parties, Hofstadter's account of the New Deal's spirit repays a new look--not as an exercise in nostalgia but in order to help recover and refurbish a suppressed but still essential American political tradition. As was his wont, Hofstadter overstated his case, underestimating both the intense social conflicts that helped push the reforms forward and the degree to which Progressive ideas (particularly in the area of labor reform) guided New Deal thinking. But simply by identifying the change and by portraying what Hofstadter called the New Deal's "chaos of experimentation" as a sign of vibrancy, not weakness, The Age of Reform concisely defined the transformation of modern American liberalism [my emphasis], two years before Schlesinger took up the issue, in much greater detail, in The Crisis of the Old Order, 1919-1933. For that, apart from everything else, Hofstadter's book retains some of its old luster--and has even acquired a new urgency.

Wilentz is both incisive and dull in this passage. Incisive in recognizing the sharp break that the New Deal represented and dull in misunderstanding that while the ideals of the progressive movements that predated The New Deal nourished it, the fundamental rethinking of the role of government, particularly the federal government was, in many ways, revolutionary. I think Professor Bruce Ackerman's conception of a "Constitutional Moment" best describes it.:

Under [President Bush]'s leadership, the American people would have initiated a new constitutional order that had self-consciously repudiated the regime founded by Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the era of Social Security and the United Nations was now dead, and the Court was going to build a new constitutional system based on very different premises.

There would have been nothing unprecedented in this scenario. This was precisely how Roosevelt created the modern constitutional regime in the first place. His eight appointments to the Supreme Court repudiated the laissez-faire constitutionalism of the preceding era and created the activist national government we know today. Indeed, if the New Deal-Great Society regime is going to die, there is a certain propriety in seeing it killed in precisely the same manner in which it was born. [Of course, the GOP's attempt to destroy FDR's legacy has been an epic fail]. . .

Professor Ackerman's theory is more complex than this short description - it requires the book length treatment he has given it. But the significance is the same. FDR changed our philosophy of government and the FDR liberal philosophy remains that which we follow today.

. . . How did FDR do it and can Democrats defend FDR liberalism today? Maybe not by calling it FDR liberalism but they surely can and do when they have the courage of their convictions. The most prominent of these instances was the fight to save Social Security Faced with Media hostility, Republican demagogy and flat out lies, Democrats rallied to the FDR liberalism banner and crushed the Republican attempts to roll back the clock. FDR would have been proud of Democrats in that fight. No triangulation. Good old fashioned political populism won the day.

And that is FDR's lesson for Obama. Politics is not a battle for the middle. It is a battle for defining the terms of the political debate. It is a battle to be able to say what is the middle.

In January 2007, Paul Krugman took up the argument:

Today Paul Krugman . . . picks up on the lessons of FDR:

Barack Obama recently lamented the fact that “politics has become so bitter and partisan” — which it certainly has. But he then went on to say that partisanship is why “we can’t tackle the big problems that demand solutions. And that’s what we have to change first.” Um, no. If history is any guide, what we need are political leaders willing to tackle the big problems despite bitter partisan opposition. . . .

Or to put it another way: what we need now is another F.D.R., not another Dwight Eisenhower. . . . I urge Mr. Obama — and everyone else who thinks that good will alone is enough to change the tone of our politics — to read the speeches of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the quintessential example of a president who tackled big problems that demanded solutions.

For the fact is that F.D.R. faced fierce opposition as he created the institutions — Social Security, unemployment insurance, more progressive taxation and beyond — that helped alleviate inequality. And he didn’t shy away from confrontation. “We had to struggle,” he declared in 1936, “with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. ... Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

. . . If all goes well, we’ll eventually have a new era of bipartisanship — but that will be the end of the story, not the beginning. . . . It was only after F.D.R. had created a more equal society, and the old class warriors of the G.O.P. were replaced by “modern Republicans” who accepted the New Deal, that bipartisanship began to prevail.

I doubt very much the Media and the Beltway Establishment really understands what FDR did and how he did it. If they did, they would not be clamoring for Obama to be like FDR. They are High Broderists at heart. But I bet Obama knows. and I hope he has learned the lessons of FDR. Because we surely need him to be like FDR now.

By Big Tent Democrat, speaking for me only

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  • Display: Sort:
    As you can see (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 07:53:58 AM EST
    I have had Obama on the brain for a long time. It actually predates these pieces - starting in 2005 when we were in the midst of the Supreme Court battles and Obama came to daily kos to chide us for being hard on Senate Dems.

    It led to this famous diary (none / 0) (#2)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 07:56:17 AM EST
    I think in somewhat of a response to (none / 0) (#5)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 08:02:45 AM EST
    this post and and this promoted diary.

    BTW, proving yet again he never gets it right, LarryinNYC wrote a diary criticizing me as well.


    Fine diary by Obama (none / 0) (#20)
    by Demi Moaned on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 10:27:19 AM EST
    It's the first time I've seen it, and it gives me both more respect for and more understanding of where he seems to be coming from. I particularly liked this passage:
    According to the storyline that drives many advocacy groups and Democratic activists - a storyline often reflected in comments on this blog - we are up against a sharply partisan, radically conservative, take-no-prisoners Republican party.  They have beaten us twice by energizing their base with red meat rhetoric and single-minded devotion and discipline to their agenda.  In order to beat them, it is necessary for Democrats to get some backbone, give as good as they get, brook no compromise, drive out Democrats who are interested in "appeasing" the right wing, and enforce a more clearly progressive agenda.  The country, finally knowing what we stand for and seeing a sharp contrast, will rally to our side and thereby usher in a new progressive era.

    He really shows that he "gets it" in this passage, and so paves the way for me to follow him in explaining how he differs from this view.


    Heh (none / 0) (#21)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 10:31:50 AM EST
    ARGH!!!! (none / 0) (#22)
    by andgarden on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 10:44:22 AM EST
    We're stuck with him now (none / 0) (#30)
    by Demi Moaned on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 11:49:56 AM EST
    And I'd like to have reasons to hope for the best.

    The fact that he can articulate my viewpoint in terms I approve of, is a hopeful sign. Another hopeful sign (in the full diary) is his discussion of the issues that we care about.

    Like BTD, I've never cared for the unity schtick-- seeing it as laying the ground for eventual betrayal.

    The betrayal may yet come. But for now, I'd like to have some reasons for optimism.


    unfortunately obama was entirely wrong... (none / 0) (#31)
    by Dadler on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 02:14:38 PM EST
    ...about roberts, which casts his "wisdom" in a much different light.  if the end result of non-ideological processes is the appointment of judges like Roberts to the highest court, we can do with some ideology.  lots of it.

    Obama on Roberts (none / 0) (#33)
    by Demi Moaned on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 02:45:16 PM EST
    I shared enough of these concerns that I voted against Roberts on the floor this morning.  But short of mounting an all-out filibuster -- a quixotic fight I would not have supported; ... that would have effectively signaled an unwillingness on the part of Democrats to confirm any Bush nominee, an unwillingness which I believe would have set a dangerous precedent for future administrations -- blocking Roberts was not a realistic option.

    In such circumstances, attacks on Pat Leahy, Russ Feingold and the other Democrats who, after careful consideration, voted for Roberts make no sense.  Russ Feingold, the only Democrat to vote not only against war in Iraq but also against the Patriot Act, doesn't become complicit in the erosion of civil liberties simply because he chooses to abide by a deeply held and legitimate view that a President, having won a popular election, is entitled to some benefit of the doubt when it comes to judicial appointments. Like it or not, that view has pretty strong support in the Constitution's design.[Emphasis added.]

    I find that a strong argument.

    Eleanor was too polarizing. That's why (5.00 / 2) (#4)
    by ThatOneVoter on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 08:00:13 AM EST
    FDR couldn't accomplish anything.

    Huh? What are you saying? (none / 0) (#8)
    by feet on earth on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 08:17:32 AM EST
    That strong men partnering in life with strong  strong women accomplishing nothing because their strong wives are polarizing?  

    Oh brother, get a grip!!!


    Snarkometer off? (5.00 / 1) (#9)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 08:18:57 AM EST
    Get a sense of humor! n/t (none / 0) (#34)
    by MileHi Hawkeye on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 04:00:45 PM EST
    lessons of FDR (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by noholib on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 08:07:36 AM EST
    Excellent piece BTD!
    I fervently hope that President-elect Obama recognizes the needs of the hour and gets past his earlier mushy post-partisan unity schtick. I hope he will act boldly and re-define the terms of the debate for the middle/mainstream -- and undo the Reagan-inspired "conventional wisdom" of less government and lower taxes and fewer services. I hope that Obama is channeling a fierce inner FDR, liberal Democratic commitment.

    As a grad student (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by kenosharick on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 08:16:46 AM EST
    in History it warms my heart to see discussions like this.  I find something useful for most everything I write in "The Age of Reform."  You might find "Liberalism and its Discontents" by Alan Brinkley (Harvard Univ. Press, 1998) to be of interest.

    If Obama plays his cards right, (none / 0) (#3)
    by WS on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 07:59:55 AM EST
    he can really have a watershed Presidency.  

    I wonder if Obama (none / 0) (#10)
    by lilburro on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 08:23:51 AM EST
    still believes this:

    I think this perspective misreads the American people.  From traveling throughout Illinois and more recently around the country, I can tell you that Americans are suspicious of labels and suspicious of jargon.  They don't think George Bush is mean-spirited or prejudiced, but have become aware that his administration is irresponsible and often incompetent.  They don't think that corporations are inherently evil (a lot of them work in corporations), but they recognize that big business, unchecked, can fix the game to the detriment of working people and small entrepreneurs.  

    Big business is still unchecked, and now it's getting substantial funds from US to stay afloat.  Things have gotten so much worse - I assume Obama understands that Americans are not just suspicious of labels and jargon, but of Wall Street, business, and anyone who cuddles up to them.

    Events on the ground will play a huge role (none / 0) (#11)
    by vicndabx on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 08:33:38 AM EST
    The most prominent of these instances was the fight to save Social Security Faced with Media hostility, Republican demagogy and flat out lies, Democrats rallied to the FDR liberalism banner and crushed the Republican attempts to roll back the clock.

    IIRC, most of the republican proposals involved 401K-type plans that relied heavily on the stock market.  There was a lot of volatility in the stock market which made folks wary of gambling on their retirement too heavily.  Case in point - noone would propose those type of plans right now, and probably won't for a long time.  If the market "crash" hadn't happened, I could see republicans trying to recycle them during an Obama administration.

    Obama needs to be able to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.  If he can do this, he can use the background noise effectively to bolster arguments for/against proposals being pushed on the populace.  While I'm no FDR historian, I'm sure he leveraged events on the ground to maximum effect as well.

    Maybe the more relevant question (none / 0) (#12)
    by Exeter on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 09:13:44 AM EST
    is Bush like or unlike Hoover and is the current situation in the country like or unlike the Great Depression.

    IMO, Hoover was a member of the progressive wing of the GOP and a leader in the Efficiency Movement and if alive today would be, for better or worse, a technocratic Al Gore type.  I think the problems with Hoover were largely that he lacked the leadership skills to steer the country out of storm and, perhaps more importantly, lacked the time to do it before the election.

    As far as the current economic situation and the Great Depression, there are some similarities, but I don't think they are comparable in severity in any material way.  


    Krugman (none / 0) (#13)
    by lentinel on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 09:22:00 AM EST
    Krugman said on TV yesterday that what really brought about an economic recovery was ---- World War 2.


    No Yikes (5.00 / 1) (#14)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 09:26:51 AM EST
    Krugman said that FDR made a huge mistake when he stopped stimulating the economy in 1937 by raising taxes and cutting the budget.

    Which is basically what Obama (none / 0) (#16)
    by Pepe on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 09:46:03 AM EST
    said he is going to do. He will raise taxes on some as he said (although he has ducked that question when asked of late) and he said he will cut the budget.

    One argument is that he has no choice but to do both. Will that be a mistake also?

    An argument against Krugman, and it is a valid one, is that Krugman is not always right.


    My Yikes... (none / 0) (#35)
    by lentinel on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 05:58:54 PM EST
    had to do with Krugman referring to World War Two as "an enormous "public works program". He referred to Roosevelt's efforts in 1934 as improving the economy "somewhat" - and then tanking when he was persuaded to try to balance the budget. He goes on to say that it took WW2 to bring the economy out of the depression.

    I hope that Obama goes to the early Roosevelt approach of public works to stimulate the economy - and once and for all abandons the part of our economy that is dependent on the creation and deployment of weaponry.


    Well the war (none / 0) (#19)
    by Pepe on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 09:57:46 AM EST
    did crank up the economy and put everyone to work. It also ramped up manufacturing so that at the end of the war we had the capacity to actually make things and we had a trained work force, including returning soldiers, to man those factories. And with that came a middle class with the income to buy things and push along our domestic market and tax base, and create a national unity - plus a bunch of other things that were a result of the war.

    But if you boil it all down, post-war, it was the ability to manufacture that was the long term plus for our country. But if you'd leave it up to Free Traders like some on this blog they want no part of that. They are more than happy to send American jobs offshore although they never quite explain why that is good. They belong to Club Friedman.


    He's said that many times (none / 0) (#23)
    by Demi Moaned on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 10:44:29 AM EST
    ... and usually when does he goes on to explain what's wrong with the popular fallacy that war produces economic recovery.

    The economic impact of the war was that it was a spending program that was finally big enough in comparison to the earlier New Deal programs. And that the stimulus could have been achieved by spending purely on domestic programs (the kind Republicans hate).

    One thing that people forget is how much was rationed during the war. Employment was high, but most of the good things were still hard to get. Real prosperity came after the war.


    I think Obama will come to agree (none / 0) (#15)
    by andgarden on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 09:39:22 AM EST
    that you, Krugman, and  Hofstadter are more right than he was in 2005.

    Oh, and you have totally inserted yourself into history. Some grad student in 30 years is going to be trying to figure out who this "Armando" was that edited Obama's piece in 2005.

    For the record (none / 0) (#17)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 09:46:30 AM EST
    The only editing I did was of the formatting variety.

    Of course (none / 0) (#18)
    by andgarden on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 09:48:19 AM EST
    I think Krugman is missing a key point (none / 0) (#24)
    by flyerhawk on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 10:48:39 AM EST
    FDR didn't face any opposition in Congress. He had the most lopsided Congress since the Reconstruction.  He was free to enact whatever legislation he wanted.

    It was the Supreme Court which was his great nemesis.  And this was why he tried to "pack the court".

    And while FDR had many enemies the American people were completely behind him.

    Lincoln faced a divided nation.  South Carolina seceded from the Union before he even took office.  He took office on an abolitionist mandate built on the anger over Bleeding Kansas and Dred Scott.  And despite he repeated claims of not advocating for abolition the South revolted.

    I think that Obama sits somewhere in the middle of these two great Presidents.

    Um, FDR didn't face any opposition? (none / 0) (#25)
    by andgarden on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 11:18:36 AM EST
    Do you know anything about the Democratic party circa 1938?

    You mean (none / 0) (#26)
    by flyerhawk on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 11:31:45 AM EST
    6 years into his Presidency?  

    He got his butt handed to him in 38 and the Democrats turned on him.  The botched loading of the court coupled with an economic downturn really hurt the Democratic Party.

    I was referring more to his first term, which seems to be the most applicable to Obama right now.


    Um, not exactly (none / 0) (#27)
    by andgarden on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 11:33:58 AM EST
    Why do you think FDR campaigned against so many Dems in 1938?

    He did have an agenda in 1936, you know.


    Regardless (none / 0) (#28)
    by flyerhawk on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 11:38:51 AM EST
    You are still talking about his second term.

    I think it's pretty well established (none / 0) (#29)
    by andgarden on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 11:41:03 AM EST
    that he had a window where he got just about whatever he wanted out of Congress. But that didn't wasn't directly related to Democratic margins there. QED.

    And, ironically, the single thing (none / 0) (#32)
    by Alien Abductee on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 02:32:25 PM EST
    that will give Obama the most latitude to assert a new active progressivism is Bush's $700B bailout. It's the knock-down STFU response to every "conservative" objection to the expansive use of government for the common good. Obama may be the greatest pol ever, but he's also the luckiest pol ever, at least so far.