Thursday :: Feb 5, 2009

Lessons from FDR - 2


by eriposte

Yesterday, Josh Marshall published two different perspectives from readers. One post featured comments by longtime Obama supporter Theda Skocpol who is apparently disillusioned by Obama's incessant courting of Republicans. Skocpol wrote (emphasis mine, throughout this post): "Obama is, sadly, much to blame for giving the Republicans so much leverage. He defined the challenge as biparitsanship [sic] not saving the U.S. economy. Right now, he has only one chance to re-set this deteriorating debate: He needs to give a major speech on the economy, explain to Americans what is happening and what must be done. People will, as of now, still listen to him -- and what else is his political capital for? Speaking as a strong Obama supporter who put my energies and money into it, I am now very disillusioned with him. He spent the last two weeks empowering Republicans...." Another reader offered a counter-perspective in part, saying: "I don't share the sense of panic expressed by some Obama supporters over his approach to the stimulus package. If the campaign taught us anything, it's that Obama is willing to invest in strategies that only yield dividends in the long term. I suspect his careful cultivation of the GOP side of the aisle is closely akin to his caucus strategy; it may require a lot of time and effort before it produces a payoff, but if he can pick off votes and limit rancor, it will be well worth the investment. But I have been surprised that Obama has not done more to make his case directly to voters. [...] The downside to overwhelming popularity is that it can produce a false sense of confidence. Electoral support can never be assumed; it must constantly be pursued. Conducting five sit-down interviews is a nice first step. But it's not enough. Obama should be using every available outlet to take his case directly to voters, to illustrate to them just how this package stands to impact their lives - and he hasn't. That's my real frustration."

Aside from the unintentionally hilarious comparison of Obama's strategy with Congressional Republicans to his caucus strategy in the last election, both of these readers have essentially summarized the main arguments that some longtime Obama supporters have advanced as critiques of his approach to-date and both views have some merit. However, in my humble opinion, the reader who seems to believe in the long-term dividends behind Obama's courting of Congressional Republicans is badly mistaken on that specific point. I think a review of some history is useful at this juncture.

In my previous post "Lessons from FDR", I discussed the key mistakes FDR made that blunted the growth impact of his New Deal programs. Today, I'll comment on FDR's rhetoric and the political atmosphere at the start of his Presidency, for a couple of reasons. The primary reason is my growing nervousness at the Obama administration's highly avoidable fumbling on the stimulus Bill and the politics surrounding it, especially given the significant long-term repercussions of what is happening right now - both economically and politically. The secondary reason is that when I see rhetoric from President Obama like "A failure to act, and act now, will turn crisis into a catastrophe...", I am reminded of President Franklin Roosevelt's repeated calls to that effect - yet, not only am I not seeing President Obama doing what FDR did to push aggressively to follow-through on his own calls, he is sowing the seeds of his seriously flawed "bipartisanship" rhetoric - something that was flawed when he propagated it repeatedly during his election campaign and that remains flawed today and a stumbling block. I also see in President Obama's maneuverings his first attempts to build bridges with Congress - not unlike what FDR did. However, as well intentioned as this might be, the Congress and the opposition that FDR faced was significantly different in style and substance from what President Obama faces today and if he fails to recognize this difference, he could be faced with a less than stellar "first 100 days".

Let's start the discussion with FDR's call for "action, and action now" in his widely praised inaugural address in 1933 (emphasis mine, throughout this post):  

Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now.

Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources.

Hand in hand with this we must frankly recognize the overbalance of population in our industrial centers and, by engaging on a national scale in a redistribution, endeavor to provide a better use of the land for those best fitted for the land. The task can be helped by definite efforts to raise the values of agricultural products and with this the power to purchase the output of our cities. It can be helped by preventing realistically the tragedy of the growing loss through foreclosure of our small homes and our farms. It can be helped by insistence that the Federal, State, and local governments act forthwith on the demand that their cost be drastically reduced. It can be helped by the unifying of relief activities which today are often scattered, uneconomical, and unequal. It can be helped by national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and of communications and other utilities which have a definitely public character. There are many ways in which it can be helped, but it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly.

FDR followed his call to action in aggressive ways. His progressive economic vision is well known to most people. In fact, he was very clear on the need for a clean break from Hooverism and Republicanism on economic matters - during his election campaign and thereafter. As it turns out, FDR's cabinet was in fact more moderate than his rhetoric would indicate. Here's Smith:

As Roosevelt described it, the cabinet was "slightly to the left of center." Three members (Hull, Swanson, and Roper) were old Wilsonians. Three were Republicans: either Republican-progressive (Ickes and Wallace) or Republican conservative (Woodlin)... [page 295]

It should be remembered that industrialist William Woodlin was asked to run Treasury. You may also recall that it was Interior Secretary Harold Ickes' fiscal tight-fistedness and conservatism that partly blunted FDR's New Deal in its early stages. Nevertheless, FDR largely took charge and did not let his cabinet or Congress dictate the terms of his New Deal.

This is not to say FDR did not try to woo Congress or the Governors. He did so, despite the fact that Democrats had a 310-117 majority in the House and a 60-36 majority in the Senate in 1933. However, FDR at the time had to do very little by way of wooing because the style and substance of his opposition was far more welcoming of his Presidency and economic agenda, at least at the start of his first term, than the GOP that President Obama faces today

On Congress, Smith wrote:

[Soon after he was inaugurated] FDR met with congressional leaders in the White House. In addition, he invited Senator Glass and Representative Henry B. Steagall of Alabama, chairmen of the respective committees that would report the legislation. Later in the evening he met with House minority leader Bertrand H. Snell of New York and Republican senator Hiram Johnson of California. The most remarkable thing, said Johnson afterward, was Roosevelt's "readiness to assume responsibility and his taking that responsibility with a smile."5 After eight years as assistant secretary of the Navy, working with Josephus Daniels and observing his easy relations with Capitol Hill, Roosevelt had an unparalleled understanding of how to deal with Congress. He knew how to stroke the members, how to play to their vanity, and how to accommodate their needs. "No president ever approached the prerogatives of the legislative body with more scrupulous attention to detail," said John Gunther, one of Washington's most astute observers. 6 [page 306]

Yet, Congress at the time required very little wooing:

The House of Representatives convened as scheduled at noon, Thursday, March 9. Congress would remain is session until June 15, exactly one hundred days, the most productive legislative session in history. As soon as the members were sworn in and officers elected, the president's banking message was read. "I cannot too strongly urge upon the Congress the clear necessity for immediate action." 23 At 2:55 P.M. House majority leader Joseph Byrns of Tennessee introduced the legislation (H.R. 1491) under a closed rule that permitted no amendments. Debate was limited to forty minutes. Minority Leader Snell asked for Republican support: "Give the President what he says is necessary." 24 The printed bill was not yet available [...] There was no debate. There had been no hearings, no committee consideration, no action by either caucus. Members took on faith what the leadership presented, and the leadership took on faith what FDR requested....The bill passed with a unanimous whoop of approval. There was no request for a roll call. [...]

By the time the Senate turned to the bill, printed copies were on hand and the debate was less perfunctory. Huey Long sought greater aid for the "little banks at the forks of the creeks," while western populists, led by Robert La Folette, wanted FDR to nationalize the banks. The amendments were shouted down, and just before seven-thirty the Senate passed the bill 73-7, the opposition coming primarily from Progressives, who believed the bill did not go far enough in asserting federal control.26  [page 312]

FDR also met all the Governors immediately after his inauguration, and they also showed they needed virtually no wooing:

Monday morning, FDR met with the governors of the forty-eight states in the East Room of the White House. Most were in town to attend the inauguration and the president had intended to spend the day with them discussing common problems. But the banking crisis took priority....He spoke impromptu for ten minutes...He was given a prolonged standing ovation, and in pledge of support those present stated, "Without regard to our political affiliations we Governors of the States...hereby express our confidence and faith in our President and urge the Congress and all the people of our united country to cooperate with him...He is ready to lead if we are ready to follow."8 [page 307]

I am highlighting this history only to emphasize the staggering sense of seriousness that permeated the political establishment at the start of FDR's presidency. The Republicans were completely prepared to set aside their pettiness, cynicism, dishonesty and fear-mongering against FDR (and there was plenty of that during the preceding Presidential campaign between FDR and Herbert Hoover) given the graveness of the economic situation that the U.S. found itself in, largely due to terrible Republican policies of the preceding years. They were willing to give President Roosevelt not just the benefit of doubt, but almost unprecedented control over the legislative machinery - not because FDR courted them but because there was a sense of seriousness that things were terribly wrong and that change was badly needed. Today, we are in a political environment where the Republicans in Congress, still smarting from the shellacking in November, are looking for every means possible to weaken President Obama from the very beginning. As much as I'm in favor of debate and discussion on legislation, when dishonesty is the means of "debate", then it is clear that the opposition that is engaging in it (helped in so small part by a pliant media) is not seeking legitimate debate to advance the public interest. The GOP's intentions today are quite different from those of the GOP that faced off with FDR in early 1933. Hence, trying to woo them under the belief of reaping long-term "dividends" is extraordinarily misguided. Wooing today's GOP will only enable and strengthen them and their discredited ideas. Which brings me to the second lesson.

FDR was also careful in that he did not build his platform of change around the rhetoric of "bipartisanship" or "post-partisanship". His platform was an explicit rejection of prevailing Republican economic ideas. It was therefore easier for him to rally the broader public around his cause (something that Skocpol and JMM's other reader want to see happen in Obama's case). In contrast, President Obama severely damaged his cause pre-emptively through repeated appeals to "bipartisanship" and "Republican ideas" throughout his election campaign and continued the quest for "bipartisanship" after his inauguration. It was pretty obvious back then that this was an attempt to win over independents but the casualty of this strategy is the difficulty it puts him in now when faced with a variety of destructive "bipartisan", "Republican ideas" that the media freely pass on without proper scrutiny. (This is something many of us predicted and it takes me no pleasure to point this out). I suspect the dilemma that President Obama faces now is the following. How do you motivate a big chunk of your support base to fight for staunchly progressive positions against destructive and discredited Republican ideas, when you explicitly excited that base using appeals to "bipartisanship"? I was pretty strong in repeatedly criticizing then-Senator Obama's rhetoric on bipartisanship for this very reason, because it reflected a lack of interest in properly defining the terms of the debate, up front. Now, his rhetoric, predictably threatens to impact his political legacy due to Republican obstructionism, spin and dishonesty aimed at polluting the legislative sphere. Hence, the choice for President Obama is to either try and sustain his "bipartisan, post-partisan, nice-guy" personal legacy in The Village, or make a clean break and take personal risks to pass truly needed and robust legislation even if it means a dent against his personal standing, added hostility from the media and the GOP, and yes, a temporary drop in approval ratings. If he ends up governing in fear of dropping approval ratings, that would be a colossal mistake. This is not a time to worry about approval ratings or the fear of losing elections. The situation in America is too grave for that.

P.S. It's worth noting that FDR's campaign for the Presidency did not reflect a clean break with Hooverism entirely. As historian Jean Edward Smith chronicles in his book "FDR":

An exception to FDR's refusal to bail out the Republicans was in foreign policy. During the campaign Roosevelt virtually ignored international affairs - "I think Hoover's foreign policy is about right," he told Raymond Moley - and he chose not to make an issue of it after the election... [page 291]

FDR was therefore willing to preserve some aspects of Republicanism but he never hesitated to rhetorically demolish flawed Republican economic principles.

eriposte :: 8:29 AM :: Comments (32) :: Digg It!