The comparison of then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008 to Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the height of the presidential campaign was hyped, overblown and made mostly to sell magazines, puff up television pundit sound bites, by a few over enthusiastic Democratic party campaign boosters.
Though undoubtedly flattered by it, candidate Obama did not encourage the comparison to FDR. Many hoped that he would inch toward looking and acting like FDR.
They relentlessly pushed, prodded and hectored him to lurch in that direction. There were many days to come of bitter frustration and disappointment, punctuated by loud grumblings of betrayal.
But how realistic was the Obama-FDR nexus expectation? Obama, as FDR, knew that he was in a political life and death, take-no-prisoners war with his political enemies — Republicans, ultra conservative Democrats, Wall Street and the big bankers and big manufacturers.
Unlike FDR, for months Obama soft peddled, coddled and placated his opponents even as they made absolutely no effort to mask their loathing of his policies and presidency, and made it abundantly clear they would stop at nothing to hound him from office.
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FDR, by contrast, hit back hard at his enemies as obstructionists and economic royalists. He never wavered from his commitment that the workers and farmers, the “common man,” came first.
Obama gingerly and gently began to move in that direction in the second year of his administration in 2010. He admitted what everyone knew and that was that making nice with the Republicans and making futile appeals to them for bi-partisanship sounded good in White House interviews and congressional speeches, but in the ruthless party-eat-party world of real politics it was a sure fire prescription for an ineffectual, moribund and hapless presidency, not to mention ridicule as a president without a spine.
There was a good reason for the cautious steps Obama took toward FDR.
The GOP was stupendously successful through much of the last century in tagging any Democrat who championed increased regulatory powers, higher taxes on corporations and the rich, greater public spending on health, education and job programs, and bolstering entitlement programs as a reckless, tax-and-spend enemy of private enterprise. Franklin Roosevelt was no exception to the maligning.
After re-election in 2012, Obama got just enough of a popular mandate to be more daring on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and dumping the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. He also proposed a sharp increase in the minimum wage, and spending even more billions on public and private job growth.
This brought back the howls from the GOP of a big government overreach and dire warnings that this would gut big business and thus stifle economic recovery. The comparison to the ire against Roosevelt was in order here.
Following his landslide re-election victory in 1936, Roosevelt ignored the administration baiters and lurched left. He increased spending on job programs, continued to pound the “economic royalists” for subverting the economy and attacked auto and steel giants and the superrich “Sixty Families” for doing everything to stymie the recovery.
In a fireside chat, Roosevelt talked bluntly with the American people immediately after the 1938 election and made it clear he would not reverse course and that he would do everything he could to “create an economic upturn” by keeping the government firmly in the business of creating jobs and economic security for the millions still suffering from the Depression.
In 2012, the GOP retained the House, and its party line was unchanged: that millions of Americans still loudly clamoured for a return to fiscal conservatism and a sprint backward on expanding government programs in education, housing and highway and urban infrastructure construction and reconstruction. Polls showed the exact opposite.
Most voters wanted Congress to work with the president on solving the nation’s problems, most importantly that meant the economy. There was too much political risk in the GOP’s mounting an all-out frontal attack on Obama and his plan for more government spending in vital areas.
So, the new code word for that was simply to continue to pound on the need for deficit reduction and fiscal restraint. That had just enough public and administration resonance to appear sensible, moderate and reasonable.
Obama did not take the bait. He gave no sign he would bow to the GOP’s end run around government. He came up with proposals to stave off the hardest and most devastating cuts to everything from Head Start to food nutrition programs and hundreds of other programs for the poor and working class that the GOP demanded.
He endorsed enactment of a modified version of the Glass-Steagall Act. That was the tough FDR era bank regulation act.
Obama continued to signal that he would put stimulus dollars directly into government-run job training programs, job banks and public works projects. The other FDR touch was to virtually order the banks to lend more to distressed homeowners, cut borrowing rates and terms and promise more aggressive government intervention to aid strapped endangered homeowners. These were the programs that would do much to help the working class and the minority poor.
This was something that private industry could never do. In that sense, he did the best he could within the limits of his power to make like FDR.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of the forthcoming “The Obama Legacy” (Middle Passage Press). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.