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A spaghetti dinner
This week’s tangled and seemingly random rhetorical path springs, appropriately, from a spaghetti dinner. My local Democratic Party had a fundraiser in July, and I made more sauce than we needed. So I froze the leftover sauce and we had another spaghetti dinner at our steering committee meeting this week. Not surprisingly, the steering committee members are all pragmatic, committed Democratic Party activists. We are also frustrated with an anemic economy, Republican intransigence, conservative dominance of the political dialogue, our loss of key state races in 2010, and the outlook for 2012.
The question arose whether President Obama being on the ballot would help or hurt other Florida Democrats. A Quinnipiac Poll earlier this month found that a majority of Floridians do not think President Obama should get a second term. Independent voters especially were turned off by the debt ceiling drama, and the president’s approval rating in Florida has dropped by seven points since May.
FDR takes on the debt ceiling debate
The frustration around the table turned to what President Obama could and should have done better. Some contrasted him with President Franklin Roosevelt, and specifically President Roosevelt’s call for a 100% tax on income over $25,000 (about $350,000 in today’s dollars). When Congress refused to pass that tax, FDR enacted it by executive order. A provision to rescind that “thoroughly un-American” executive order stalled a debt ceiling bill in Congress. The president gave in, and Congress passed a debt ceiling bill passed including the repeal of FDR’s ‘maximum wage.’ But Sam Pizzigati at the Campaign for America’s Future argues that FDR’s bold executive order shifted the debate from whether to how much the wealthy should be taxed. Within two years, the top marginal income tax rate was 94%.
But I left out some important context. That debate happened in 1942-43. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor had drawn the U.S. into World War II, a conflict that – modern conservative myth aside – was very different from President Bush’s “global war on terror.” Wartime statutes gave the federal government almost complete control of the U.S. economy. One such law, the Emergency Price Control Act of 1942, authorized the executive order by which FDR enacted his ‘maximum wage.’ That law was repealed in 1947.
Perhaps more important, President Roosevelt was at that point midway through his third term, with approval ratings near 80%. With millions of American men being drafted to fight the most cataclysmic war in human history, and tens of millions more accepting wartime rationing and working in wartime factories, FDR’s call that “not one millionaire will be created by this war” was not a huge political risk. Congress argued, but no one threatened impeachment. In the midst of World War II, with a president that popular, who would dare?
The calls for President Obama to channel FDR did not begin this summer. The earliest mention I could find was in September 2009, by Thom Hartmann. Like most such calls, Hartmann focused on FDR’s famous 1936 radio address from Madison Square Garden:
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace – business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
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.
That speech has become a siren’s call for progressives who long for President Obama to take a more combative approach. But, again, circumstances matter. That was not a policy speech. It was an election campaign speech. And less than a year later – having won the 1936 election by the widest Electoral College margin in U.S. history – FDR agreed with deficit hawks and slashed federal spending in an attempt to balance the budget. One can easily imagine 1937 progressives asking “Who is the real FDR?”
They would have had a point. No one really understood President Roosevelt. A 12-year-old supporter sent him a paper mache statue of the Sphinx … with FDR’s head. As Washington Post book reviewer Lynne Olson wrote in 2008:
The longest-serving president in U.S. history, Roosevelt was arguably the most inscrutable. He kept no diary, wrote no autobiography and unburdened himself to no one. Even his wife had no idea what was on his mind; in a letter to him, Eleanor Roosevelt exploded in frustration: “I wish I knew what you really thought & really wanted.”
Far from having a grand, unifying, ideological vision and pursuing it relentlessly, President Roosevelt was a shrewd pragmatist – or a meandering political opportunist – depending on which historians you read. After winning the presidency in 1933, he announced that his policy would be to “try something and, if that doesn’t work, try something else.”
Would a 2011 reprise of FDR’s “I welcome their hatred” challenge be a winning formula today? Not according to University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn Pearson:
A lot of people in the media and on the left seem to think the bully pulpit is much more powerful than it really is. It would make them feel better to hear that speech but they aren’t thinking about the whole population. A lot of people are not listening when the president speaks and a lot more interpret what he says through an existing partisan lens.
Such a speech would doubtless encourage progressives, but might well drive away everyone else. It would certainly end any chance of getting legislation through Congress. And that may be why FDR waited to give the original until three weeks before the election.
Indeed the Christian Science Monitor‘s Charles Dorn argued that the essence of today’s frustration lies not in the differences between President Obama and FDR, but in their similarities. We didn’t get the “sanitized, romanticized, Hollywood version” of FDR, Dorn concludes. “We got the real thing.”
President Obama was only a week in office when the Washington Post offered the headline “Obama the Sphinx.” Maybe he’s channeling FDR better than we thought.