Obama and FDR: More Similar Than Many Think

There is absolutely no problem with the fact that a great number of liberals, including me, and even some PUBs (Progressive Unicorn Brigade) and professional lefties, refer to themselves as “FDR Democrats.” Why wouldn’t we?  Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a great president with an excellent record. He came along at a time when the country was suffering, and his policies not only turned things around, but they have largely prevented another disaster comparable to the Great Depression from happening again. FDR’s New Deal policies – at least those the current Republican Party haven’t been able to destroy – prevented the Bush Recession from turning into the Bush Depression. Regulations instituted during FDR’s presidency steadied the financial markets and to let people know they could be trusted again, and he helped create the Social Security program, and such agencies as the Securities and Exchange Commission, to keep markets honest, which is the key to a thriving economy.

There’s just one problem with the way many liberals use FDR’s alleged record; especially when they use his legend (not his actual record) to detract from President Obama’s accomplishments as president. They use a few offhand mythical comparisons to claim Obama isn’t liberal, or to suggest that Obama isn’t as bold as he could be. When you look at what FDR actually was able to do, President Obama has nothing to be ashamed of at all. While the times are completely different, and comparisons can’t be exact under any circumstances, President Obama’s record actually compares very favorably to the real Roosevelt record.

Many PUBs and professional lefties love to discuss Obama’s alleged “timidity” (that’s a kind way to put it, frankly – they tend to be far more rude), reality is, FDR was also quite the pragmatist as president. This was true both when he ran for office and when he held office. He spent much of his early pre-presidential career going after the abuses of New York’s infamous Tammany Democrats, who were nearly as corrupt as Republicans today. But when it came time to run for Governor of New York, he realized he had to embrace Tammany in order to win election, and he did exactly that. FDR knew that the only way to get things done was to get elected to the office, which meant he had to appeal to as many people as possible. Sometimes, a candidate has to at least entertain all points of view, including some you don’t necessarily agree with. That doesn’t mean you’re adopting their views; it means that you’re flexible, and willing to try to build a consensus. While many on the far left are enamored with bridge burners, the vast majority of voters actually want to cast a vote for a bridge builder. They don’t want someone who’s constantly bitching about the GOP; they want someone who at least tries to work with them.

Voters also value competence over ideology. While PUBs and professional lefties were pissed at Obama for some of his nominees, voters saw his choices as signs of his competence and good sense.  President Obama didn’t choose Tim Geithner as his Treasury Secretary to help Wall Street continue to game the system, but because he needed someone by his side who understood the morass of “instruments” Republicans and Wall Street thieves had created. And I would note that, years after Geithner became Treasury Secretary and then left the job, no serious harm has come due to his stewardship of the financial system.

Obama also doesn’t try to work out deals with Republicans in Congress because he thinks they’ll meet him halfway. He does it because most Americans want factions within the government to get along and fashion a compromise, and it makes him look better in the eyes of voters. This level of pragmatism makes a lot of sense, and demonstrates strong principle. FDR and Obama both had/have strong principles, and were/are willing to do anything possible to make sure they were/are able to act on them. If all you can get is half of what you want, a person of principle will take the half, and continue working hard for the other half. Only the unprincipled give up half because they can’t get the other half. Not only is that unprincipled, it’s childish. FDR understood this concept, and so does President Obama.

It would probably surprise quite a few PUBs that one of FDR’s main complaints about Hoover during the 1932 campaign had to do with the Republican’s “huge budget deficits.” That’s right; this liberal icon complained about budget deficits during the campaign, when more than a quarter of the population was unemployed. Yet, when you listen to PUBs and pro lefties tell it, FDR was far less concerned about such things as Obama.

That’s not to say FDR didn’t have some great progressive ideas, even during his campaign. In a speech he gave before the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in September 1932, he made the following dire statement:

Our industrial plant is built; the problem just now is whether under existing conditions it is not overbuilt. Our last frontier has long since been reached, and there is practically no more free land.

That was a pretty dire forecast, to be sure. However, later in the same speech he added:

As I see it, the task of government in its relation to business is to assist the development of an economic declaration of rights, an economic constitutional order. This is the common task of statesman and businessman. It is the minimum requirement of a more permanently safe order of things.

Every man has a right to life; and this means that he has also a right to make a comfortable living. He may by sloth or crime decline to exercise that right; but it may not be denied him. We have no actual famine or death; our industrial and agricultural mechanism can produce enough and to spare. Our government formal and informal, political and economic, owes to everyone an avenue to possess himself of a portion of that plenty sufficient for his needs, through his own work.

Every man has a right to his own property; which means a right to be assured, to the fullest extent attainable, in the safety of his savings. By no other means can men carry the burdens of those parts of life which, in the nature of things afford no chance of labor; childhood, sickness, old age. In all thought of property, this right is paramount; all other property rights must yield to it. If, in accord with this principle, we must restrict the operations of the speculator, the manipulator, even the financier, I believe we must accept the restriction as needful, not to hamper individualism but to protect it.

So, how could FDR be advocating for what he outlined above at the same time he was also smacking Hoover around for his “fiscal irresponsibility” in running “huge budget deficits”? It’s because the object of any campaign is to get most people to vote for you. Different people in different regions of the country (and in some cases different regions of a state) have different views and different priorities. There is also the problem that it’s difficult to see how bad the problems are until you can get into the White House and look at the data.

In 1932, Roosevelt also campaigned on the Democratic platform in 1932, which, among other things called for “immediate and drastic reductions of all public expenditures,” (huge spending cuts), the abolishment of “useless commissions and offices” and the “[consolidation] of departments and bureaus (small government) and “eliminating extravagances” (again, huge spending cuts). This is in addition to his calls for a balanced budget. I know modern day liberals hate these people, but FDR sounded more conservative in 1932 than Mary Landrieu or Mark Pryor did this year. This is because presidential candidates have to run in the middle. Even FDR, in the depths of the Great Depression and running against the worst president in history (until George W. Bush came along), only managed 57% of the vote and lost six states.

And this is why, when far left liberals claim Obama ran way to the left in 2008 and “abandoned his principles” when he became president, they are lying. He couldn’t have run that far left, because he couldn’t have won if he did. You’re delusional.

Of course, even though FDR “only” received 57% of the presidential vote, he had one thing Obama never had; a House and Senate with a greater-than-two-thirds majority in each. This allowed  him to push almost everything  he wanted through Congress; a luxury Obama has been denied for his entire presidency. That majority allowed FDR to change a lot of things. With Democrats in Congress, they reformed the banking and financial services industry, instituted child labor laws and a minimum wage. Eventually, they ushered through the Social Security Act, although, like the Affordable Care Act pushed through by Obama and the Democrats, the program was widely criticized when it first passed. They also created a number of public works programs to get people back to work. In other words, they (not HE) spent copious amounts of money on infrastructure. It’s called “pump-priming.” Any decent economist will tell you, that’s how you get the economy flowing again.

It was FDR and the real supermajority Democratic House and Senate (Obama never had a supermajority in the Senate in 2009-10 – that’s a fallacy) made a lot of positive changes, to be sure. Of course, they were also consciously trying to keep the deficit from going out of control. FDR actually managed that, in large part, by cutting the defense budget by nearly one-third. Before you pat him on the back, however, you should understand that the defense budget then was nothing like it is now, and FDR’s cuts included a 40% reduction in veterans’ benefits, which took away the pensions of a half million veterans and widows, while reducing the pensions of the others. He also cut research and education funding, and slashed the salaries of federal employees, several things even the current GOP wouldn’t have the guts to do these days.

Whenever a PUB or professional lefty screams about how badly President Obama has “caved” in dealing with the Republican Party, remind them how much FDR did so, even though he had a veto-proof Democratic majority in the House and Senate.

Like Obama, who was left with a far higher level of deficit and debt than FDR ever dreamed of, FDR remained a deficit hawk from the time he took office in 1933 until World War II forced him to change. He refused to change course, even as the country dipped into another serious recession in 1937. While the debt had risen from 16% of Gross National Product (GNP) in 1929 to 40% of GNP in 1933, it never rose above 40% of GNP until 1941 and the beginning of World War II. That means FDR never passed anything resembling the stimulus Obama and modern-day Democrats passed, and he surely didn’t pass anything close to the $2-3 trillion (which would have represented 15-20% of GDP) most PUBs and pro lefties demanded be passed in 2009. In fact, throughout almost his entire presidency, money spent by FDR on job creation was always offset by massive spending cuts elsewhere.

I wonder how many of the PUBs who worship FDR realize that he was practically a Blue Dog. With massive support in Congress, he had  an opportunity to create a massive welfare system for the poor, but his concern over budget deficits trumped that throughout his entire presidency. He could have pushed through some very liberal civil rights legislation, but he didn’t. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was considered a strong voice on civil rights for blacks and women, but FDR did little to turn those words into action. It’s understandable, of course; politics is the art of the possible, and pushing what were at the time “radical” concepts would have cost him politically, and much of the agenda he did pass might have suffered.

This is the same reason President Obama had to wait for the political climate to change before supporting marriage equality. It took Truman (with a healthy assist from Jackie Robinson, who did more than play baseball) to end segregation in the military, several years AFTER World War II. Abortion was illegal almost everywhere, and women had little or no property rights, even though they were recruited to do “men’s jobs” during the war. When it came to health care, FDR’s administration proposed the Wagner National Health Act of 1939, but FDR himself refused to fully support it, thus possibly denying us a 70 year head start on a universal national health care system.

You should also keep a few other things in mind when pushing FDR as a role model for Obama:

  • The unemployment rate didn’t hit the single digits until well into his third term in office.
  • The minimum wage law didn’t pass until well into his second term, and only after another very deep recession in 1937.
  • When the still-conservative Supreme Court unanimously rejected the National Recovery Act in its entirety, FDR actually tried to increase the number of justices, so that he could pack the court to give him a majority.
  • FDR nominated Hugo Black to the court, who was found later to have been a member of the KKK. As a Senator, Black actually voted against an anti-lynching bill. Eventually, Black became one of the more liberal members of the court over the years, especially on civil rights. However, no one could have guessed that at the time of his nomination.
  • FDR secretly commissioned the building of a fleet of submarines with the intent of blockading Japan, well before World War II.
  • Those of you who complain about Obama for “his” failure  to close Gitmo, and for not shutting down NSA surveillance altogether, lets not forget those Japanese-American Internment Camps.

This is not to say that FDR wasn’t an amazing president. He did a lot for the country during a very difficult time, under some difficult circumstances. However, it can always be argued that a president could have and should have done more, or even less in some cases. No president can be perfect, and no one can be 100% far left progressive (or 100% far right wing, for that matter) and have a chance of winning. And on that rare occasion that lightning strikes and s/he gets into office, nothing will ever make it through Congress. And to be fair, evaluating a president’s record has to include an evaluation of the entire record, not just the parts other people tell you you should like.

Presidents are shaped by the time in which they serve, not the other way around. President Obama came into office at a time when we faced a severely troubled economy. Without bold action, we would have been looking at a Great Depression for the 21st Century. Unfortunately, presidents only get to act boldly so many times, especially these days, in which everything said and done is instantly scrutinized, evaluated and opposed. Politically speaking, you only have so much political capital, and when you spend it on an unprecedented stimulus and the beginnings of a universal health care plan, you have to give a little to get a little more. FDR understood that, and so does Barack Obama.

FDR was a great president, not perfect, and President Obama’s record is actually similar, if not slightly better. It took FDR about a decade to get unemployment below 10%, and it took him about a term and a half to get major banking reforms in place. President Obama did both much faster, and there are studies out there showing that, without Republican obstruction in Congress, the unemployment rate would already be below 5%, and the deficit, which has already been reduced by more than two-thirds, would also be much smaller..

When you look at all of the facts, Obama and FDR are very much alike, albeit from different eras. Likewise, Bush and Hoover were also very much alike, although I would give Hoover more credit for competence. But if you’re going to measure Obama’s record against FDR’s, look at the actual records, and not just the myths.

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