Many liberals, including myself, refer to themselves as "FDR Democrats" And why not? Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a great president. He came in during the worst circumstances in our history and turned the country around economically in many ways. He instituted regulations that were necessary at the time to steady 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.
But many folks use FDR's alleged 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 FDR. The problem, however, is that they use the FDR myth, and not his actual record, for comparison's sake. When you look at what FDR actually was able to do, President Obama has nothing to be ashamed of at all.
Like Obama, FDR was quite the pragmatist 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. 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 points of view you don’t always 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.
President Obama didn't choose Tim Geithner as his Treasury Secretary in order to help Wall Street continue to game the system, but he needed someone by his side that understood the morass of "instruments" Republicans and Wall Street thieves had created. He doesn't try to work out deals with Republicans in Congress because he thinks they'll meet him halfway. But the American people want factions within government to get along and fashion a compromise, and it makes him look better in the eyes of voters. This type of pragmatism makes a lot of sense, and it's actually a show of principle, not a betrayal of 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 you can only get 80% of what you want, a person of principle will take the 80%, and continue working for the other 20%. Only the unprincipled give up the 80% because it’s not 100%. FDR understood this concept, and so does President Obama.
During his run against Hoover for president, FDR took what some liberals might consider to be surprising positions. One of his main complaints against Hoover during the 1932 campaign was 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. That sounds more like a modern Republican than a Democrat, don't you think?
That is 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. But 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 the above, at the same time he was also smacking Hoover around for his “fiscal irresponsibility” in running such huge budget deficits? It's because the object of any campaign is supposed to be 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 was also another problem; 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 than Ben Nelson or Joe Lieberman in 1932. And 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.
Of course, he also got more than two-thirds of the House and Senate, which means he could ram through pretty much everything he wanted for a while. There simply weren’t enough Senators working as a solid enough bloc to stop everything from going through. It was that majority that allowed FDR to change a lot of things; together with Congress, they reformed the banking and financial services industry, instituted child labor laws and a minimum wage. Eventually, he would finally usher 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, he spent copious amounts of money on infrastructure. It’s called “pump-priming,” and any decent economist will tell you, that is how you get the economy flowing again.
Put simply, 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. He did that, in large part, by cutting the defense budget by nearly one-third. That may sound liberal, but the defense budget then was nothing like the current budget, and his cuts included a 40% reduction in veterans’ benefits, including taking away the pensions of a half million veterans and widows, and reducing the pensions of the others. He also cut research and education funding, and slashed the salaries of federal employees.
The next time screams about how much President Obama has “caved” in dealing with the Republican Party, remind them how much FDR apparently "caved" to their stated principles, even though he had a veto-proof majority in the House and Senate.
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. What that means is, FDR never passed anything close to the stimulus Obama and modern-day Democrats passed, and he surely didn’t pass anything close to the $2-3 trillion (which would be about 15-20% of GDP) most of us would like to see passed right now to get us out of this hole faster. Most of the money FDR spent to create jobs during his first three terms was offset by massive spending cuts elsewhere.
When you look at the actual FDR record, he was something of a Blue Dog. He had an opportunity to create a massive welfare system for the poor, but his concern about budget deficits trumped that throughout his 3 terms in office. He had a huge majority in Congress; he could have pushed through some very liberal civil rights legislation, but he didn’t. Though Eleanor Roosevelt was considered a strong voice on civil rights for blacks and women, very little was actually done by the president himself to turn those words into action. In part, this is because politics is the art of the possible, and pushing such "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:
- 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 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. But Black turned out to be one of the more liberal members of the court over the years, especially on civil rights.
- FDR secretly commissioned the building of a fleet of submarines with the intent of blockading Japan, even before World War II.
- And those of you who rag on Obama for failing to close Gitmo, lets not forget thoseJapanese Internment Camps.
I'm not saying that FDR wasn't an amazing president. He did a lot for the country during a very difficult time, under some difficultcircumstances. But it can always be argued that a president could have and should have done more, or done much less in some cases. But no president is perfect; not him, and not President Obama. When you evaluate a president's record, you have to look at the whole record, and 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 an severely troubled economy. Without bold action, we would have been looking at a Great Depression redux. 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 more than 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 has done both much faster, and there are studies out there showing that, without Republican obstruction in Congress, the unemployment rate would already be below 7%, which would mean the deficit would also be much smaller than it is, currently.
When you look at all of the facts, Obama and FDR are very much alike, albeit from different eras. Likewise, Bush and Hoover are also very much alike, although I give Hoover more credit for competence than I would Bush. But if you're going to measure Obama's record against FDR's, look at the actual records, and not just the myths.