Saturday, January 16, 2010

Obama's FDR Myth

A year in and Democrats are seeing their majority crumbling as party candidates are suffering prominent reverses at both the State and Federal level. That year was the year of Obama in which he successfully reversed his party's fortunes and his own. And the method by which he did was a trite combination of arrogance and ignorance. At the heart of that arrogance and ignorance lies his misreading of the FDR model.

The FDR model, also known as Rahm's "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste", was based around replicating the aggressive New Deal push in the first days of the Roosevelt administration. But despite a strong congressional majority and wholehearted backing from the media, Obama actually managed to get much less done in his first year than FDR did. And the public backlash has been far stronger.

While the press cheerfully touted Obama as a new FDR (when they weren't touting him as a new Lincoln or even Reagan), it seems as if there was a shortage of people around him who actually understood the New Deal. While FDR was certainly at least as arrogant and condescending as Obama, and aggressively implemented socialism, he understood that he had to maintain a grip on public sentiment. But where FDR quickly focused on ground level economic control, Obama instead turned to corporate bailouts and an incredibly poorly timed health care plan.

While there had been an initial wave of public works proposal, the White House was uninterested in rewarding working class voters. Instead there came the Green Jobs boondoggle and union pandering, at a time when unions represent a tiny fraction of American workers. Where the FDR Administration practiced populist socialism, as was commonplace at the time, the biggest backers of socialism today are completely detached from the concerns of the working class. Obama's economic advisers didn't want to reward "white males" with shovel ready construction projects, and so they lost them, and so did the Democratic party. 

The FDR model seemed naturally appealing to Obama's people. After all Roosevelt had run on a platform of cutting government spending and trimming the bureaucracy, only to expand it tenfold, and remained relatively popular-- but FDR had understood that he could only expand government spending by making it appear that it was being done for the benefit of the public. By contrast Obama began by bailing out banks and car companies, a fundamental tactical error, that he only worsened with an increasingly punitive health care program.

Obama has done nothing to win over swing voters or independent voters. Let alone done anything to make them permanent Democrats. Instead he rewarded a narrow slice of his own base, handed out pork to his serious backers, and assumed the Republican party was no longer a factor, except as a useful punching bag. That alone makes Obama the dumbest leading Democrat in the White House, topping even Jimmy Carter, who at least seemed to have some idea of where votes come from. As far as Obama and his advisers are concerned, votes come from positive press coverage. Which has left them baffled and wondering why it isn't working, lashing out at the press for being insufficiently supporting, and resorting to shameless stunts.

But  there was one major difference between FDR and BHO, the former had no serious Republican opposition from a party which lacked a fundamental ideological opposition to the New Deal. In practice Roosevelt experienced more political opposition from fellow Democrats, than from Republicans. Nor was there a Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck to rally the populist opposition. Father Charles Coughlin, the leading radio talk show host of the day, did repeatedly attack Roosevelt, but he was a former Roosevelt supporter attacking the President for not being socialist enough.

Obama's people had not counted on much of an opposition either, and actually expected plans like Operation Rushbo to neutralize Limbaugh. But this unfortunate miscalculation actually had the opposite result. While FDR had reserved his hatemongering for industrial leaders in a way that position him as the populist, the White House and its political allies instead began squabbling with talk show hosts and denouncing mobs, which only boosted their populist standing. While the Republican party may be nearly useless as an opposition party, the emergence of a grass roots opposition is a frustrating thorn in the side of the Obama agenda. The Democrats' tone deaf resurrection of Clinton era rhetoric about the dangers of domestic terrorism and the right wing only further enhanced the outsider rebel status of the tea party movement.

The Republican party may be impotently standing on the sidelines, but that is also increasingly rendering it immune from blame. Meanwhile the popular opposition may recreate the party into a genuine opposition, which would deliver a fatal blow to Obama's political future. FDR depended on a weak Republican opposition that had trouble finding grand areas of disagreement with him. To understand the 1936 election, imagine if the Republican party nominated Olympia Snowe to run against Obama in 2012, and her only serious primary opposition came from Chuck Hagel. It's little wonder that FDR cakewalked to reelection despite controversial policies. But as discombobulated as the present day GOP may be, Barry is unlikely to receive that kind of present in 2012.

2012 will of course be in the hands of the Republican party. And whether or not Obama gets a second term is very much up to the party and whether or not it can scare up a serious candidate. For now the Democratic party has not come to terms with the Tea Party movement, relying on their usual staple of insults and condescension to carry the day. In their minds the protesters must be controlled by some unseen Republican apparatus, because that is how Democratic "populist" movements happen. But their strategy of trying to split the Republican party from its populist base is nevertheless fairly successful with Republican politicians schizophrenically afraid of being associated with populist protesters, while looking to ride on their coattails.

It has been a long time since the Republican party has gotten angry. While the Democratic party is angry all the time, the Republican party has stuck to being the party of the grown ups. And being perceived as the grown ups is fine when the public is looking for calm leadership that is as relaxed on the golf course as it at the dais. But the public is looking for anger, an anger that Democrats expected Obama to be able to channel, instead of heading off to the golf course himself. The Democrats have remained angry, but their anger has become the outrage of the entitled and the privilege of the powerful.

FDR's success was tied more than anything else to his lack of a real opposition. The Republican party was not prepared to argue against social programs or trust busting, both items on their own agenda. It was caught off guard by his outreach to their own African-American base. Instead it was forced to make the slippery slope argument, thereby putting FDR comfortably between a Democratic-Republican opposition that essentially agreed with the premise of his policies but argued that he had gone too far, and a radical populist opposition arguing that he hadn't gone nearly far enough. The rest as they say, is history.

To defeat Obama, the Republican opposition must actively reject his policies, rather than being trapped into another slippery slope argument. And too many Republicans have compromised themselves by agreeing with the principle of some of Obama's policies, which makes it difficult, come election time, for them to disavow the entire program.

If the party puts forward a candidate who's 60 percent Obama and 40 percent Republican, instead of a candidate who can strongly reject Obama's policies and put forward different policies of his own, then we will likely see a repeat of 2008 all over again. Perhaps with a congressional shift to the right, but that won't be nearly enough if the executive branch remains in Obama's hands.

2012 demands a candidate who can reject Obama's policies on the War on Terror and reject his economic policies conclusively and decisively. Because Obama's best chance of being FDR II is a weak Republican opposition. And while he may be ignorant and arrogant, even he knows that.


Akiva said...

As Dear Leader continues to take steps that actively injure the economy and/or slow recovery, do you think the GOP will gain simply by 'not being the Democrats'? As the US now has an active underclass who's been out of work or severely underemployed for over a year (and therefore fallen off the official unemployment statistics), these people are angry and depressed, and KNOW that the government is NOT helping them.

Does the GOP even need to do anything to harness that, or do they just get it by default?

(Example is the new proposed bank liabilities tax. We're going to tax banks on a riskier investment stance, which pushes them to be more conservative and reign in lending more - exactly when businesses are trying to recover and need loans to do so.)

I see the administration trying to present such things as a classic 'get the rich guys' and 'get back at those who caused all this' - but I don't see anyone still buying it. Is that perception accurate?

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

that kind of class warfare isn't playing as well as it would have in the 1930's, mainly because people are readier to blame the government than they are the banks now

Obama has promised too much and delivered nothing

Keli Ata said...

Wonderful article, Daniel, and Shavua tov:)

It's pretty pathetic when you think about it: FDR won because he promised a New Deal; Obama won with his Hope and Change slogan.

The Reps will campaign with the slogan "ANYONE but Obama."

Akiva: VERY interesting! For decades the Greatest Generation, largely poor people who survived the Great Depression regarded the Republican party as being all for the rich people and the Dems as being for the "poor" which my mom considered the lower and upper middle class.

After just one year in office, nobody sees the Democrats as being for the poor and middle class anymore.

I can only watch baffled at how quick it turned around. I can't count how many times my parents said the Reps were all for the rich and to see this reversal of perception happening so quickly is amazing.

The Dems are all for the rich now! If they were alive my parents would be saying that!

Keli Ata said...

I think there still is a class warfare to some extent when it comes to the poor, working poor, and lower middle class and the upper middle class and upper class.

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