A Transformational President

Jon Chait writes, in the context of ironic GOP-nostalgia for Bill Clinton:

Right-wingers villified John F. Kennedy; now they revere him. One day, Obama will play the same role in the Republican imagination that Clinton does today.

You know the one Democratic President who is considered great historically that conservatives will never revere (nor should they) -- FDR. For all the talk of transformational Presidents, the truth is that in the past 100 years there really has been only one - Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In my first TalkLeft post, I discussed the revolution in government that FDR led:

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:

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, 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.

To be sure, Roosevelt had far greater popular support in triggering his constitutional revolution than Bush could ever claim. When he filled his first seat with Justice Hugo Black in 1937, 76 out of 96 senators were New Deal Democrats. The New Deal Court's repudiation of laissez-faire constitutionalism proceeded with the support of majorities in every region of the country. This obviously would not be true today, even if the president's dreams had been fulfilled.

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. [. . .]

FDR was the policy enemy of the conservative and everything he built was and is anathema to their ideas. He'll never be revered by the conservative, and never should be.

By the same token, the liberal/progressive should never forget what a true transformational Presidency looks like. That was change you could believe in.

Speaking for me only

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    i would disagree. (5.00 / 2) (#21)
    by cpinva on Sat Oct 09, 2010 at 03:08:56 AM EST
    For all the talk of transformational Presidents, the truth is that in the past 100 years there really has been only one - Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

    why everyone ignores LBJ mystifies me. he renewed the societal compact, through his "great society" legislation. he also managed (a rare twofer) to piss off both the republicans and the southern democrats. he was able to get this legislation passed, because he'd been in congress long enough to know where everybody's skeleton's were closeted.

    "if you grab a man by the balls, his heart and mind will follow."

    his biggest, most enduring mistake, overshadowing all the good he accomplished, was listening to his hawkish civilian/military advisers on vietnam.

    You're ignoring (none / 0) (#23)
    by brodie on Sat Oct 09, 2010 at 09:57:23 AM EST
    all the negative that LBJ brought.  Yes, progressive bills passed (for a while, when he was popular and had clout), but often he failed to either follow up to see if the new programs were being adequately managed or failed to adequately fund them (VN War taking precedence).  Expectations built up among the public, with disappointment often following as the promises failed to live up to their billing.

    And on the war, it's simply not true to suggest he was the victim of bad advice and but for that, well he would have somehow decided differently.  Lyndon was a true Cold Warrior through and through going back to the beginning of the CW in Congress, with a simple, very manichean understanding of foreign affairs and communist governments.  

    Basically he was a true believer in Ike's domino theory, and believed that if we didn't stop the commies in SVN, they would soon be (literally) in San Francisco.  He also overlearned the lesson of Munich, and thought a president would be thought cowardly if he were to capitulate to communist aggression in VN.  His favorite advisers, as he revealed in interviews with Doris Kearns, were the VN hawks and ultrahawks -- SoS Rusk and nat'l security adviser Rostow (promoted by LBJ after JFK had demoted him out of the WH), which again confirms that Johnson was probably always intent on escalating in Nam.

    A deeply deceptive president, and a flat-out bully, with strong suggestions of actual mental illness (bipolar syndrome mixed with profound paranoia), utterly incapable of speaking the truth to the public.  As a result of his deceptions, his unnecessary war and his bizarre negative personality and attitude, he badly divided the country and his party, and was so widely despised in the land that he was forced to not seek another term as prez.

    Because of LBJ and his poor, even reckless stewardship of the presidency, we got Nixon, and the beginning of the RW assault on the New Deal idea of gov't as a potential force for good.


    Seriously? RW'rs revere JFK? (none / 0) (#1)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri Oct 08, 2010 at 05:03:27 PM EST
    I did not know that.

    They do now. (none / 0) (#2)
    by Ga6thDem on Fri Oct 08, 2010 at 05:18:33 PM EST
    For what reason I don't know though.

    I don't know where they get the idea that they revere Clinton. All the right wingers I know hate him. I do know a few though that said Clinton was a dream compared to Bush believe it or not. But hey, those idiots killed the goose that laid the golden egg. I think perhaps they fear him more than they like him. After all Clinton is the only living Democrat to beat them.


    I can (none / 0) (#4)
    by Ga6thDem on Fri Oct 08, 2010 at 05:22:36 PM EST
    understand that but they love the quote ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.

    That I can see. (none / 0) (#5)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri Oct 08, 2010 at 05:25:24 PM EST
    Doesn't everyone love that quote?

    my personal fave (none / 0) (#6)
    by CST on Fri Oct 08, 2010 at 05:27:26 PM EST
    is "I am a jelly donut"

    or "Ich bin ein Berliner"


    Oh, gosh (5.00 / 1) (#14)
    by gyrfalcon on Fri Oct 08, 2010 at 09:14:09 PM EST
    that's such a crock.  Yes, a "Berliner" is a sort of jelly donut, but it's also a person who makes his home in Berlin. NOBODY in Germany thought for one second he was calling himself a donut.  I don't know where that got started, but it's just wrong.

    A New Yorker is a magazine and it's also a resident of New York.  A Frankfurter is a hot dog but it's also a resident of Frankfurt.  A Hamburger is-- but you get the point.


    heh (none / 0) (#34)
    by CST on Mon Oct 11, 2010 at 09:04:38 AM EST
    it's funny....

    And fwiw, that "rumor" got started for me in my 8th grade German class by my french-born teacher who loved JFK.  I was told that the grammatical error was in the use of "ein", but my German's far from perfect, so who knows.

    Of course people knew what he meant, and Berlin loved him.  But it also literally means Jelly Donut.  Maybe since I wasn't personally invested in the politics of that time, I don't take it all that seriously.

    BTW, I always thought it was funny that they call the large half-black/half-white cookies there "Amerikaners".


    See there you made me google his quotes. (none / 0) (#7)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri Oct 08, 2010 at 05:35:28 PM EST
    Here's a good one
    Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.

    It was the grammatically (none / 0) (#16)
    by brodie on Fri Oct 08, 2010 at 10:44:09 PM EST
    proper way to express his solidarity with the people of Berlin and no one at the time misunderstood it in the silly way you reference.  Not saying "ein" would have been wrong as it would have meant he was claiming to be a literal citizen of Berlin.  

    Silly urban legend that still gets repeated as fact, alas even on the better blogs.


    But most (none / 0) (#26)
    by BackFromOhio on Sun Oct 10, 2010 at 11:45:16 AM EST
    live by the creed, what can my country do for me?  Who's giving to the public weal today?  The volunteer army?  The beneficiaries of privatized, no-bid contracts?  The wealthy who do not want taxes raised to pre-Bush levels?  

    GOP Hatred Is Well Documented (none / 0) (#12)
    by norris morris on Fri Oct 08, 2010 at 06:16:13 PM EST
    And it includes FDR,Kennedy, and Clinton.

    Among almost everything Democratic.


    Don't Forget FDR (none / 0) (#13)
    by norris morris on Fri Oct 08, 2010 at 06:45:00 PM EST
    FDR was a formidable GOP opponent.

    And he was transformational when this country was on its ass.


    FDR had pressure (none / 0) (#18)
    by jondee on Sat Oct 09, 2010 at 12:05:35 AM EST
    from the bottom in those days that he could afford to ignore only at his own peril. And that great "transformation" had every bit as much to do with People Power as it did with an imagined much-more-far-sighted-and-enlightened elite that we can only wish we had today..

    The American working class then, particularly by today's standards, was lean and mean, historically engaged, well organized, well led and a force and voice to be reckoned with. And not overly-benighted and in a tizzy over Jesus Pie in the Sky, Rush and Glenn and swarthy foreigners taking our jobs and hatching terrorist plots.

    As the (possibly apocryphal, but true enough), story about Roosevelt goes: at one point the New Deal FDR said to a group of indignant financiers, "the only thing standing between you and the pitchforks is me". Emissaries of the too-big-to-fail need have no such fears today.


    One reason only (none / 0) (#15)
    by gyrfalcon on Fri Oct 08, 2010 at 09:15:52 PM EST
    Because he cut taxes on the wealthy.  Can't remember the precise figure, but he brought down the then 90 percent top marginal tax rate to something like 70 percent.

    The fact that he was an ardent cold warrior and at least tried to liberate Cuba also helps.  But it's the tax thing they keep bringing him up for.


    It wasn't JFK's first choice -- (none / 0) (#17)
    by brodie on Fri Oct 08, 2010 at 10:55:46 PM EST
    which was additional, stimulative gov't spending, which he found would be a definite no-go in Congress -- but he did propose as an alternative, not completely enthusiastically, an across-the-board tax cut.  A few months after Dallas it was passed, though containing fewer of the tax reforms he'd initially wanted.

    91% tax rate was pretty ridiculously high, even though most at the marginal income level where it kicked in were usually availing themselves of the many loopholes at hand, so few actually paid at that rate.

    But the RW loves to focus narrowly on only the tax cut for the upper tier, as justification for continuing further tax cuts for this group at today's ridiculously low marginal rate.  

    Re being an alleged cold warrior, read the recent outstanding book JFK and the Unspeakable, by James Douglass.  Lays out all of what Kennedy was trying to accomplish by way of détente with the Soviets post-Missile Crisis and how he became more of an anti-Cold Warrior and fierce Pentagon skeptic in his final year or more in office.


    Thanks for the rec (none / 0) (#19)
    by gyrfalcon on Sat Oct 09, 2010 at 12:32:16 AM EST
    I'll see if I can look that up.

    When I say JFK was a cold warrior, I don't mean that as a slam.  Having lived through the era of Khrushchev and Sputnik and the failed Hungarian revolution and missiles in Cuba, I don't really think any rational actor had any other choice.  Very different world than during the long decline of the Andropov, Brezhnev, Chernenko and then Gorbachev era.

    In JFK's time, it was still a very real possibility that the very aggressive Soviet regime would find some excuse to do the unthinkable.

    I admit I'm somewhat biased on this question, though, having had the utterly searing experience of seeing the Berlin wall just a few months after it was slapped together, and blood stains still visible on the streets nearby.

    Actually, I was in Budapest at the time of the Cuban missile crisis.  I still have somewhere a little German language Hungarian/Soviet paper whose first page was taken up with the printed music for a song called "Cuba Si, Yankee No," even though the news of what was going on was known only to the few people who could get Radio Free Europe and the like on their radios.


    You couldn't get elected (none / 0) (#24)
    by brodie on Sat Oct 09, 2010 at 10:15:11 AM EST
    dog catcher back then w/o espousing certain fundamental cold war beliefs, but rhetoric and actions with Kennedy were often two different things.  Especially post-missile crisis, the internal admin record (much of which was withheld until recently) reveals that JFK and NK were both quietly working towards détente, along with JFK's friendly overtures to Castro, through 3d party intermediaries, to achieve a new beginning with that country (which overtures would have been political dynamite against Kennedy if they'd been made public back then).  

    Khrushchev's son Sergei later said his father believed that had he and Kennedy gotten those 5 more years working together -- and by mid-63 they did seem to be working in harmony --that the Cold War would have been over by the end of the 60s.

    The true Cold Warriors, who rarely diverged from their rigid path of nonthinking, were the 99% of the Pentagon brass including the JCS, JFK's cowboy successor, most advisers in the nat'l security chain of command, and most, but not all, of the cong'l conservatives (D and R).  

    Again, the Douglass book lays all this out nicely and in great detail and is highly recommended.


    THe book "Brothers" (none / 0) (#27)
    by BackFromOhio on Sun Oct 10, 2010 at 11:50:48 AM EST
    about JFK & RFK has a very insightful analysis of the historical origins of the anti-Castro pro-cold warriors in the government who opposed JFK.

    The Joint Chief's Operation Northwoods (5.00 / 1) (#28)
    by jondee on Sun Oct 10, 2010 at 01:50:39 PM EST
    plan in the early sixties: if that wasn't a glaring example of how a dangerously unhinged fringe element can sometimes wield influence in the highest places in government, and how there can exist in the upper echelons the most radical, 'ideological' splits, both attempting to influence foreign policy, nothing would be..

    Looked at in it's historical context, the implications of something like Northwoods are almost enough to make some of the most sober-minded observers big time Oliver Stone fans.


    Charlie Rose interview (none / 0) (#29)
    by BackFromOhio on Sun Oct 10, 2010 at 02:32:54 PM EST
    of Woodward was very concerning to me because Woodward indicates that there are some in the military who disregard presidential authority. I assume this issue is covered in the latest book as well.  

    True enough (none / 0) (#30)
    by gyrfalcon on Sun Oct 10, 2010 at 08:36:06 PM EST
    from what I've read.

    Thanks, as always, for the clarity.

    JFK was in many ways a pretty extraordinary cat, and for no particularly good reason one can trace back to education or family or anything else.  So were Bobby and Teddy, but not until later.  And one does wonder (or I do) whether they would have turned out the way they did if they hadn't had Jack.


    he did? (none / 0) (#20)
    by cpinva on Sat Oct 09, 2010 at 02:29:09 AM EST
    The fact that he was an ardent cold warrior and at least tried to liberate Cuba also helps

    i assume you're referring to the bay of pigs fiasco. let me set you straight, historically speaking. the bay of pigs operation was not initiated under the kennedy administration, it was an eisenhower cia clusterf*ck.

    according to the record, when informed of it, kennedy couldn't have been less enthusiastic. his brother, AG RFK, strongly urged him to terminate it. again, per the record, JFK's first reaction was to terminate it as well. the only reason he didn't, was concern that doing so would adversely affect him politically, make him look soft on the godless commies.

    while JFK gave it the go ahead, he also advised that no official military support would be forthcoming, absent a complete overthrow (which he didn't see happening) of the castro regime. we all know how the movie ended.

    the cuban missile crisis probably gave JFK his single, best opportunity to overthrow castro officially; kruschev wasn't going to risk total annihilation of the USSR, for castro. and yet, it didn't happen.


    JFK was indeed in a huge (none / 0) (#25)
    by brodie on Sat Oct 09, 2010 at 10:35:30 AM EST
    bind with that BoP plan.  Hard to say no to something that had been green-lighted by respected military hero Ike, hard to say no early on to the Pentagon/CIA who were pushing it hard on him, hard to suddenly do a 180 and go against all that harsh anti-Castro rhetoric he'd used to get elected.  

    But in the end, he took the lemon of the disaster and turned it into lemonade in terms of lessons learned about the CIA and military brass bad advice, which was invaluable experience during the missile crisis and in deciding not to send combat troops into VN.

    the cuban missile crisis probably gave JFK his single, best opportunity to overthrow castro officially; kruschev wasn't going to risk total annihilation of the USSR, for castro. and yet, it didn't happen.

    Mebbe, but JFK couldn't know for certain how NK would react to bombing/invasion of Cuba, as nearly all his advisers advised, and the risk of massive Soviet retaliation was something he had to consider.  Years later, interestingly, it was learned that in fact Soviet field commanders in Cuba did have express authority from Moscow to use their tactical nuclear weapons (which in '62 we didn't know they had in Cuba) in the event Soviet forces were attacked.  Thankfully, Kennedy was wise enough and level-headed enough to withstand all the pressure to bomb/invade and choose a safer middle-ground alternative.


    Really! (none / 0) (#31)
    by gyrfalcon on Sun Oct 10, 2010 at 08:39:39 PM EST
    Don't "set me straight", buddy (none / 0) (#32)
    by gyrfalcon on Sun Oct 10, 2010 at 08:41:15 PM EST
    I lived through it.  I know all about that.  Do you insist on a lengthy historical treatise in every comment?

    Fact remains -- let me set you straight -- he swallowed his concerns about it and went ahead with it.

    I don't even know what your point is.


    Seriously? (none / 0) (#9)
    by norris morris on Fri Oct 08, 2010 at 06:05:11 PM EST
    The GOP does not love FDR,Clinton or Kennedy.

    In your dreams.

    The GOP reveres Reagan. Period.

    Some others still revere Goldwater.

    The hatred levelled at FDR by GOP is historic in its intensity. Likewise Kennedy and Clinton.



    Methinks you need to read better. (none / 0) (#10)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri Oct 08, 2010 at 06:12:11 PM EST
    Either that or make sense when you write...

    That will be very sad for Obama . . . (none / 0) (#8)
    by nycstray on Fri Oct 08, 2010 at 05:38:10 PM EST
    if he's actually shooting for St Ronnie status :)

    I'm afraid we will never see another one (none / 0) (#22)
    by Bornagaindem on Sat Oct 09, 2010 at 05:52:23 AM EST
    transformational president that is.

    It is no longer possible in this day of television driven reality show type hype that the really competent experienced presidents that we need can be elected. That became abundantly clear when we elected the completely inexperienced George W. Bush because his daddy had been president (and whose own father wisely preferred his other son) And that was followed by the next empty suit, completely unqualified and again inexperienced Obama.

    I used to think that there was difference between dems and repugs but Obama's presidency has blown that misconception. In fact in many ways it is worse because his so-called progressive leftist agenda has moved the middle even further to the right. The healthcare reform just entrenches the worst and most costly part of the system  - big insurance - into our law with an individual mandate to boot.

    The only silver lining is that the coming huge cost increases in healthcare  and the mandate will break the backs of the american people, make us even less competitive in the world and hasten the demise and MAYBE that will awaken the masses. The Tea party is a start , the people are really angry,  they just don't know exactly who they are angry at or how to properly channel that anger.

    This is where a great leader should come in.

    The waivers were (none / 0) (#33)
    by gyrfalcon on Sun Oct 10, 2010 at 08:43:23 PM EST
    part of the bill as passed and were contemplated for exactly this kind of situation, to bridge the gap between passage of the bill and its implementation.

    I don't like the bill at all, but it makes ZERO sense to allow these people to go entirely uninsured until the provisions kick in that will give them at least some alternative.

    Rail against stuff that's worth railing about, please.