President Obama spent seven hours last week acting like a committee chairman, not a president. Rather than preside over the nationally televised health care “summit” of Democratic and Republican members of Congress, Obama was a participant. He big-footed Democrats and responded to Republican statements himself. He talked and talked and talked, considerably more than anyone else and for a total of two hours. When Obama delivered a concluding monologue, the TV cameras panned to a drowsy and bored group of senators and House members, the Republicans especially.
Did Obama lower the presidency to the level of mere legislator? Perhaps. But I think Obama’s behavior at the summit answers a separate question, one that’s lingered since he was elected more than 15 months ago. Is Obama the new FDR? The answer is no.
If Franklin Delano Roosevelt were president today, the summit never would have happened. As the top priority on his agenda, liberal health care reform would have been enacted already. For Obama, the summit was a last-gasp attempt to revive his moribund legislation. More than likely, it will fail.
The reason is tied to what is probably the greatest difference between FDR and Obama. Roosevelt took command of Washington. Obama hasn’t. “FDR became the father of the modern presidency by moving the Chief Executive to the center of the American political universe,” John Yoo writes in his new book on presidential power, Crisis and Command. “Roosevelt’s revolution radically shifted the balance of power among the three branches of government.”
Obama has weakened the presidency and strengthened the power of Congress—a shift in the other direction. FDR seized legislative authority. The bills that Congress passed in his first 100 days and beyond were produced by the Roosevelt administration and ratified reflexively by Congress. There’s a reason you probably don’t know who Henry Rainey and Joe Robinson were. They were rubber stamps, Rainey as House speaker, Robinson as Senate majority leader.
But in Obama’s Washington, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid are powerhouses. The job of actually writing bills—the economic stimulus, health care, cap and trade, the omnibus appropriation—was turned over to them and their colleagues. To put it more bluntly, Obama has abdicated where FDR ruled like a king (at least in his first year in the White House).
Roosevelt’s strategy worked. Obama’s hasn’t. The FDR agenda passed, though the Supreme Court later struck down important parts of it. Except for the stimulus, Obama’s top priorities haven’t passed. FDR moved on, in 1935 and 1936, to getting the so-called Second New Deal (Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act) enacted. Obama’s future looks less rosy.
It’s clear that Roosevelt had an ambitious vision and a far more expansive idea of the presidency than Obama has. When I first heard the tale that Obama had told congressional Democrats to write the bills and he’d sell them, I thought it was apocryphal. Now I’m not so sure. Obama seems to see presidential power as purely rhetorical.
Two appealing aspects of Roosevelt’s public style have not been duplicated by Obama. He hasn’t come close. “In contrast to presidents who inundate the nation with words, Roosevelt rationed his broadcasts,” writes presidential historian Fred Greenstein in The Presidential Difference. He gave four fireside chats his first year, then fewer. In a letter cited by Greenstein, FDR said “the public psychology cannot be attuned for long periods of time to a constant repetition of the highest note in the scale.”
Obama, in contrast, talks incessantly on practically any subject. He was interviewed at halftime of the recent Duke-Georgetown basketball game on—you guessed it—basketball. He has debased the value of the “exclusive” interview with the president by granting so many. Obama is ubiquitous, and always talking. He’s lost his connection with millions of Americans, who’ve tuned him out. He’s sparked a political backlash. FDR didn’t until his second term.
Then there’s the mystery of FDR the man. “The man behind the style was an enigma,” Greenstein writes. This created a mystique and enhanced his influence. Obama is relatively transparent and has less clout. When he tries to promote a deal in public or intimidate an opponent—he tried both at last week’s summit—he comes across as a bossy senator or chief of staff.
To Obama’s credit, he hasn’t claimed to be the reincarnation of FDR. At a fundraiser last year, he said he’d put his “first four months (in office) up against any prior administration since FDR.” The “since” gets Obama off the hook. The FDR issue has been raised mostly by friendly liberals in the media.