Mischaracterizing FDR to Indict Obama

by John Sides on August 8, 2011 · 11 comments

in Institutions,Political Economy

Part of Drew Westen’s piece suggested that Obama should have followed the example of FDR:

In similar circumstances, Franklin D. Roosevelt offered Americans a promise to use the power of his office to make their lives better and to keep trying until he got it right. Beginning in his first inaugural address, and in the fireside chats that followed, he explained how the crash had happened, and he minced no words about those who had caused it. He promised to do something no president had done before: to use the resources of the United States to put Americans directly to work, building the infrastructure we still rely on today. He swore to keep the people who had caused the crisis out of the halls of power, and he made good on that promise. In a 1936 speech at Madison Square Garden, he thundered, “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

I asked Eric Schickler, a political scientist at UC-Berkeley who has done research (forthcoming) on public opinion, FDR, and the New Deal, to respond:

Drew Westen’s article depicts Franklin Roosevelt as a president who waged fierce, consistent battle against the wealthy, financial interests who had caused the Depression.  FDR was always the friend of the downtrodden, the”forgotten man,” and pushed a simple narrative that the public could understand: he would defend them against abusive, wealthy interests and use government power to bring them jobs and recovery.  This account of FDR is an appealing narrative to many observers today since it seems to put in sharp relief Obama’s shortcomings.  But it obscures far more than it reveals about FDR’s approach to governing.

While FDR’s inaugural did include salvos against the “unscrupulous money changers,” his actual policies in his first term relied heavily on cooperation with the business community.  The NRA —which FDR hailed as the most important recovery measure—essentially allowed businesses to form cartels, under the friendly supervision of the pro-business Hugh Johnson.  Many of the signal liberal accomplishments of the New Deal were not initiated by FDR; in several cases, the president came to reluctantly embrace policies that social movements on the left and liberal advocates in Congress forced onto the agenda.

Indeed, during FDR’s first three years in office, his version of the New Deal faced more serious challenges from populists and insurgents on the left than from Republicans.  Far from the bold, unyielding advocate fighting off conservative resistance, the FDR of the first New Deal was navigating between competing ideological camps, attempting to build a broad, all-class alliance.  Indeed, FDR was always surrounded by teams of advisers with widely divergent views of the government’s role and he kept them—and the public—guessing about which side he was really on.

The most famous—and perhaps telling—example of FDR siding with the conservatives came in 1937 when he agreed that it was time to retrench government spending.  This policy—advocated by Treasury Secretary Morgenthau—helped plunge the country back into a deep recession.  While FDR was able to partly reverse course, he had the benefit of a Congress with overwhelming Democratic majorities.  Even so, it was not until the war mobilization that the level of government spending proved sufficient to pull the U.S. out of the Depression.  Had it not been for the war crisis and mobilization, FDR may well have left office in 1940 with the U.S. still mired in difficult economic circumstances and with the New Deal’s political foundation hardly secure.

In any case, when it came to domestic politics, FDR was playing defense from the late 1930s through the end of his term.  Even with nominal Democratic majorities, conservatives in Congress managed to defund several New Deal agencies that had been crucial to liberal aspirations (e.g. the National Resources Planning Board) and to launch investigations that undermined popular support for labor unions, one of the key pillars of the New Deal coalition.

Looking back, there is no question that FDR was able to accomplish far more in terms of liberal reform than Barack Obama has or will achieve.  But explaining that gap in terms of the individual character of FDR and Obama is far off the mark.  Few presidents moved in as many different directions, with as little concern for ideological consistency as Franklin Roosevelt.  To attribute his success and Obama’s limitations to FDR’s clear and consistent vision may well be appealing to contemporary liberals hungry for a simple narrative that provides a clear target for their disappointments.  But that does not make it a sound historical or political analysis.

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