Not Your Father’s FDR
A comparison that does Obama no favors.
May 10, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 32 • By FRED BARNES
In the famous first 100 days of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency in 1933, legislation creating the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the National Recovery Administration sailed through Congress. So did sweeping initiatives dealing with unemployment, agricultural relief, railroad reorganization, relief for homeowners, banking reform, taxes, a government economy act, and public construction. The bills passed with lopsided bipartisan majorities. There was barely a peep of opposition, partisan, ideological, or otherwise—much less any calls for repeal or incipient movements to roll back any of the New Deal measures. One more thing: FDR was loved (though not by the well-to-do).
Barack Obama is often likened to FDR, chiefly because he’s a Democratic president, smooth-spoken, liberal, and confronted by the worst economic downturn since the Depression. But Obama’s first 100 days, indeed the entire first 15 months of his presidency, have been quite different from Roosevelt’s. An economic stimulus package, housing recovery aid, landmark health care reform, and a government takeover of the college loan program—substantial legislation, for sure—have been approved by an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress. His achievements, however, have been smaller than FDR’s: partisan, liberal, and passed despite furious opposition. The health care bill has sparked a repeal crusade. Public approval of his performance as president has dropped below 50 percent.
Why has Obama fallen so short of FDR? It’s a fair question and a relevant comparison. After all, the similarity between the two has been touted by his sympathizers in the media, though not so much recently. And the president himself has alluded to it. He hasn’t claimed to match FDR, only that he’d put his 100 days “up against any prior administration since FDR.” No small boast.
Roosevelt had political advantages that Obama does not. The economy really was crippled in 1933. The jobless rate was 25 percent when FDR was inaugurated. “You’re not talking about 9.7 percent,” the current rate, says Stephen Hess of Brookings. “It was really a lot worse [in 1933].” Congress was a rubber stamp. “FDR had a clearer path than Obama does,” notes Hillsdale College professor Burt Folsom, author of New Deal, Raw Deal (2008).
But there’s another reason—an important one—why Congress and the public were so receptive to everything FDR proposed and more contrary in Obama’s case. The Progressive movement’s recipe of government activism still echoed, and the Communist and Fascist models of government control of the economy were fashionable among intellectuals. When FDR unveiled a radical change in farm policy with the Agricultural Adjustment Act, there was virtually no public resistance. The same was true with the explosion of federal spending. His Washington-run programs “had not had a chance to be tried—and fail,” Folsom says.
Now they’ve been tested and have come up short in the minds of millions of Americans, who distrust Washington and regard many government domestic policies as costly failures. When Congress passed the stimulus and a free-spending omnibus budget a month after Obama took office last year, public resistance was almost instant. Nearly all Republicans voted against both bills. Tea parties protested rising spending, soaring debt, and tax hikes. By summer, as the president and Democrats were pursuing their health care initiative, independents who’d voted for Obama began to bolt. Obama, his popularity fading, was not only a victim of history but also guilty of misinterpreting it.
This episode should be encouraging to conservatives. Well before Republican elites were willing to challenge Obama, militant grass-roots opposition to his agenda had erupted. It was largely spontaneous. Republicans couldn’t have organized if they’d tried. The meaning of the uprising was clear. The ideas of limited government, less spending, lower taxes, and less debt had a vastly larger following than conservative and Republican leaders, Obama, and the media had realized.
Roosevelt had another advantage over Obama, a small one. Newspaper publishers were hostile to FDR, but the White House press corps liked him. He controlled what they wrote by insisting his remarks at twice-weekly sessions with reporters be off-the-record. He decided what they could quote. The reporting tended to emphasize FDR’s intentions, not what might result from his policies. Obama, too, had a lovefest with the press until recently. But he dislikes being held accountable and has stopped holding full-fledged press conferences.
Presidential historian Fred I. Greenstein described FDR as “endlessly inspiring” in his book The Presidential Difference (rev. ed. 2009). Early in his presidency, Roosevelt stirred the public’s morale, giving “a stricken nation a valuable psychological boost,” wrote historian David M. Kennedy in Time. Can you imagine anyone saying such things about Obama? Perhaps during the 2008 campaign, but not since he’s been president. When Obama was inaugurated, 63 percent of Americans believed the country was moving in the wrong direction, according to a Rasmussen poll. Now 62 percent do.
As for political skills, “maybe FDR was just a lot more skillful,” Hess says. Forget the “maybe.” FDR was a master politician. Obama isn’t. Roosevelt didn’t delegate; Obama does. Roosevelt personally dominated Congress and controlled the story coming out of Washington. Obama is dependent on Democratic allies in Congress and has lost control of the message. FDR used the bully pulpit sparingly but effectively. Obama uses it relentlessly and ineffectively. FDR kept the public and the political community enthralled until 1937 when he committed an egregious unforced error in his second term. He sought to pack the Supreme Court with six more justices. The 1938 midterm congressional election was a Republican landslide.
For FDR, “the game changes after 1938,” says Folsom. For Obama, it’s likely to change after 2010 with a Republican resurgence in the midterm election. If it does, it will be because Obama emulated FDR where he shouldn’t have (his agenda) but fell short of FDR where he needed to come closer (inspiration, political ability). Simple as that.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
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