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Not Your Father’s FDR

A comparison that does Obama no favors.

May 10, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 32 • By FRED BARNES
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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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