Lessons from FDR, Unlearned

Jean Edward Smith makes clear in a New York Times op-ed that President Obama is not governing anywhere near the mold of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and he could learn a great deal from FDR’s methods.

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S apparent readiness to backtrack on the public insurance option in his health care package is not just a concession to his political opponents — this fixation on securing bipartisan support for health care reform suggests that the Democratic Party has forgotten how to govern and the White House has forgotten how to lead.

This was not true of Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Congresses that enacted the New Deal. With the exception of the Emergency Banking Act of 1933 (which gave the president authority to close the nation’s banks and which passed the House of Representatives unanimously), the principal legislative innovations of the 1930s were enacted over the vigorous opposition of a deeply entrenched minority. Majority rule, as Roosevelt saw it, did not require his opponents’ permission.

When Roosevelt asked Congress to establish the Tennessee Valley Authority to provide cheap electric power for the impoverished South, he did not consult with utility giants like Commonwealth and Southern. When he asked for the creation of a Securities and Exchange Commission to curb the excesses of Wall Street, he did not request the cooperation of those about to be regulated. When Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Act divesting investment houses of their commercial banking functions, the Democrats did not need the approval of J. P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs or Lehman Brothers.

Smith goes on to point out that FDR went so far as to relish the hatred his actions and beliefs precipitated from his opponents. What a marked contrast from the current administration’s ethos. The quest for not even a patina but genuine bipartisanship on matters of the gravest importance is bizarre unto politically catastrophic.

Roosevelt understood that governing involved choice and that choice engendered dissent. He accepted opposition as part of the process. It is time for the Obama administration to step up to the plate and make some hard choices.

Health care reform enacted by a Democratic majority is still meaningful reform. Even if it is passed without Republican support, it would still be the law of the land.

Obama has not yet accepted opposition as part of the process of governance. As a result, every half-decent idea, regardless of pre-negotiation concessions made by him or other Democrats, will be watered down at best and outright opposed at worst by Republican legislators.

There comes a point where the only responsible thing for the President to do is to lead. Not from the imaginary center or a point of compromise, but from what he campaigned on in 2007 and 2008 and what we might reasonably presume he actually believes. He must surely have faith that the policies that carried him into office would, if enacted, actually work and their success would convince the public in their validity. The perpetual desire to compromise belies any conviction Obama may have that his policy prescriptions will be successful. Worst of all, it is the antithesis of leadership.

Since the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004, I have said that America would enter 2009 in dire need of a President who could lead with the strength and vision of FDR. There was too much damage done under Bush to not stop the rollback to social services and the erosion of the public safety net. We needed a President who could move the policy ball down the field far enough to potentially withstand 80 years of erosion, as many of FDR’s New Deal era policies have. But this need is predicated on the assumption that person sitting in the Oval Office has conviction in his beliefs and will act on that conviction, regardless of what Republicans, conservative Democrats, and America’s business lobbies say about him and his ideas. At least in the first nine months of the Obama administration, we have not gotten a new FDR or anything close to it. There is time for Obama to reverse himself, though. The healthcare fight is the perfect place for him to start, but if he elects to abdicate the onus of leadership it will be an ill omen for things to come.

One thought on “Lessons from FDR, Unlearned

  1. We have already received the ill omens – FISA, continued rendition, limits on the prosecution of lawlessness during the Bush/Cheney regime, bank bailouts without bank reform – the list goes on. A failure by Obama to vigorously support the public option and worse to champion mandated purchase of health insurance from private insurers will split the Democratic party in two and destroy the hoped for change which we voted for last November. I hope for the best, but fear the worst.


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