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Understanding Your Government: Obama, FDR and the Notion of Change
Some on the left left like to compare Obama to FDR, citing his many failures to live up to FDR’s New Deal. But both FDR and Obama did/do what they can within the constraints of their respective political environments.
The New Yorker recounts Obama telling one of his favorite FDR stories:
“At a fundraising dinner in 2008, in Montclair, New Jersey, Obama told one of his favorite stories about F.D.R. (He told the story apropos of the Israeli-Arab dispute, but it also pertains to gay marriage.) Obama recounted how when F.D.R. was confronted by the civil-rights leader A. Philip Randolph about the racial injustices in the country and the need for the President to use his powers and his bully pulpit, F.D.R. said he agreed but he would only take action when he was forced to do so by a popular movement. “Make me do it,” he told Randolph.”
No president can enact sustainable change until the will of the people calls for the change and that’s why the call to “make me do it” via a popular movement is key. The word popular is the often missed ingredient as activists attempt to sway the President. Popular implies that the majority of Americans support the change, so the question should be not how to get the President to make this change, but how to move the collective mind of the people.
Sustainable change comes through shaping public opinion, not by ramming unpopular laws through (see the ideologically disastrous reign of Scott Walker for proof) before appealing to popular sentiment. Even if public opinion exists for the change, and the President supports it, significant change could still succumb to weight of today’s treacherous legislative process.
Real change is served by using language to persuade the middle, because the left isn’t numerous or strong enough to unilaterally deliver change. Real change is brought about by things like mainstream entertainment shows including gay people in their characters and popular celebrities like Ellen coming out. Real change is brought about by turning “fringe” ideas into mainstream, shared acceptance.
Once an idea is accepted in the mainstream, public opinion has been changed. And when public opinion is changed, it becomes tougher for the opposition to take a vote against said legislation. No one knows this better than the far right. This is one reason they have so successfully co-opted our language and reframed our debates within conservative ideology. They did this by deliberately infiltrating the culture at every level.
The Right won minds in a myriad of ways — in local government, via think tanks that generate “expert opinions”, by putting a pleasant face on their radical agenda and repeating the mantra. They have branded themselves as the party of personal responsibility and reason in the public’s mind. And old ideas die hard.
Even if Obama did have the popular support needed to implement change, it would still be impossible for him to be like FDR, in part because of some of the changes that Roosevelt himself, and the subsequent legislative branch response to his administration’s power, have brought to our government. In 2009, Megan McCardle outlined some of the ways in which things have changed,
There was no institution like the CBO to model the impact of his programs, and implacably report that they were going to cost huge amounts of money
There was no vast fraternity of tax lawyers to help blunt the revenue enhancements from new taxes
Discipline in the Senate and the House was much stronger
Corporate lobbying was relatively weak, and interest group lobbying was in its infancy
There was no existing infrastructure of programs with constituents fighting change
Obama also can’t be like FDR because Roosevelt had gigantic majorities in Congress. After the 1932 election 2/3 of the members of Congress were Democrats. Democrats controlled 318 of the 435 seats in the House. There was no 60 vote rule in the Senate, so FDR had 60 votes and total control of the body. (This is part where progressives often argue that Obama also came into office with 60 votes. He didn’t. He had 58 votes and 2 Independents that caucused with the Democratic Party).
The importance of the 60 vote rule to the obstruction of Obama’s initiatives can’t be understated. It was a Democrat, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who made sure that true comprehensive health care reform did not pass. Obama’s agenda was constantly held hostage by members of his own party, because the 60 vote gave every single Democrat in the caucus the power to singlehandedly water down or kill legislation.
FDR’s majority in the House was the only one since 1899 where a majority of the body was freshmen. These new members of the House were elected based on Roosevelt’s promise of a New Deal. Their political futures were directly tied to the President’s in a way that Obama’s Democratic majority was not.
The power dynamic between the executive and the legislative branches is also different than it was in 1932. Because of the Great Depression, the American people gave Roosevelt virtually unlimited power. (There was even talk during FDR’s first 100 days of giving him unlimited power to deal with the economy. After the hands off Hoover years, America wanted a strong president.) A vast majority of Americans looked to the President to lead them out of the Depression.
Obama came into office facing a different reality. America didn’t give Obama unlimited power. Instead, from almost the moment he took office, Obama had to deal with a Democratic majority in the Senate that was more interested in their own power than supporting the President. Rather than 1 shared agenda in early days of Obama’s term, there were 61 agendas — Obama’s plus a Democratic caucus’ whose political future was not directly tied to this President.
Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed an era where there was less media scrutiny of the President. There was no Internet, no television, and no 24 hour news cycle. If FDR’s first term faced the restrictions that Obama’s has, the New Deal would have never have come to be. These are the reasons why Obama can’t be FDR and just make Congress do what he wants to fulfill the progressive agenda.
It’s ironic that we use FDR to bash Obama with, when both are/were pragmatists who know how to use the sentiment of the day to enact big change. FDR had other advantages that Obama doesn’t, one of the biggest being that FDR’s America did not have such rampant mistrust of government as our generation does, post-Nixon and W. And FDR had language. He knew how to use language to make liberal ideas appeal to the mainstream, instead of coming off as a radical agenda. Obama shares this talent, though he is not as skilled in his direct communication with the American public as FDR. For all of the talk of Obama’s incredible oratory skills, few note that when speaking directly to the camera without a live audience, Obama’s passion falls flat. This President is at his best speaking to the people directly.
Make him do it, but first, make others want to make him do it, too.