Belmont Club

The Non-FDR

Drew Western, writing in the NY Times argues that President Obama was given a chance to step into FDR’s shoes and unaccountably got cold feet. The stars had aligned to place Obama on the “arc of history” but the President chose instead to take the garbage chute to nowhere.  Western divides his postmortem of the Obama presidency into two parts. The first is to establish that President as a catastrophic failure. And having done that the second was to find the reason why. He concludes that Obama failed because he didn’t know how to play hardball. In consequence this generation has missed its chance at a New New Deal simply because Barack H. Obama could not be Franklin D. Roosevelt.

More than few things separate the two men. Three quarters of a century for one. The lack of World War 2 for another.  But that doesn’t keep Drew from setting the stage in which Obama plays the part of FDR.  “When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was spinning in reverse.”  It is the dramatic entry redolent with references to older time and place.

But no sooner is the story begun than it goes off into the alternative history.  Western describes what Obama should have said, rather than what he actually said. What he should have said of course is what FDR might have spoken.

“I know you’re scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. … We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them.

Here was the essence of the New Deal. Government was going to pick up where capitalism had dropped the ball.  It was going to perfect the broken world of greed. Never mind that the ball consisted of tax codes, fiat money, and regulations of which government was as much a part as anyone. It was by virtue of occupying the commanding heights and inheritable by the enlightened the Dealer of the New Deal.  The vanguard. Government was going to lift it up and demand integrity and thereby uplift humanity. To announce that would have sounded the clarion. But Obama didn’t sound it to Western’s regret. He didn’t toot the trumpet; didn’t step into the shoes which the arc of history had cobbled for him. And why? Because he underestimated the viciousness and savagery of the capitalist enemy which he had the chance to suppress in the same way that FDR did.

Those were the shoes — that was the historic role — that Americans elected Barack Obama to fill. The president is fond of referring to “the arc of history,” paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But with his deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics — in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time — he has broken that arc and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation.

Instead, Obama sort of, kind of slipped into them and tried them on for size. But that was a mistake, because the thing about historical shoes is that you have to fill them completely. You cannot share the space handed to you by Fate with rival tendencies in historically decisive moments. You have to get up there and pump your fist in the air, lay down the gauntlet, brook no opposition, leave no gray areas because the American people are apt to be too stupid to see what a man with shoes is getting at unless he makes it “stick” in their minds. ‘I am wearing these shoes and you had better get used to it.’

To the average American, who was still staring into the abyss, the half-stimulus did nothing but prove that Ronald Reagan was right, that government is the problem. In fact, the average American had no idea what Democrats were trying to accomplish by deficit spending because no one bothered to explain it to them with the repetition and evocative imagery that our brains require to make an idea, particularly a paradoxical one, “stick.”

At any rate the President didn’t do what Drew Western thought he should do. Didn’t act the way he should have acted. And therefore he failed. Failed from want of nerve. So Western throws him aside like a broken thing.

Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama — and by extension the party he leads — believes on virtually any issue. … The real conundrum is why the president seems so compelled to take both sides of every issue, encouraging voters to project whatever they want on him, and hoping they won’t realize which hand is holding the rabbit.

Such a painful betrayal requires a post-mortem and Western is up to it. He has two possible explanations ready to illumine the catastrophe that has overtaken Obama. One was that Obama was infirm of will: “that he and his advisers have succumbed to a view of electoral success to which many Democrats succumb — that ‘centrist’ voters like ‘centrist’ politicians … A second possibility is that he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history.”

The second explanation is that Obama is being held hostage against his will in the White House by Sarah Palin and a bunch of hicks from the boonies. “A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election.” Or in the terms of an immortal Tweet by James Taranto, “don’t blame Obama, he was no match for the Tea Party”.

FDR took on Hitler. Smashed Tojo. Crushed Mussolini. Faced off with Stalin. Humbled the British Empire. All Barack Obama could do, by contrast, was surrender to Michelle Bachmann.

But there’s a third explanation for Obama’s failure with the liberal base. It is that Drew Western and those who subscribe to similar views may have misjudged everything. Misjudged Obama’s management and executive abilities. Misjudged the way the economy works. Misjudged even their alternative history. They were living out Gatsby’s fantasy and Nick had failed to introduce them to Daisy.

Marx famous said in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon that “that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice … the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”  We forget how tragic a figure Roosevelt was.  But FDR’s mistakes were concealed within the bigger catastrophe of the Depression and World War 2. Now the tragedy within that seed has bloomed to fruition in the debt crisis which hobbles the nation. But FDR’s second coming, as Barack Obama, was sure to be farce and doubtless it is.

But it is tragedy also. Obama could not be FDR even if he wanted to. The year is 2011; it will never again be 1933. No one should have burdened the President with the unenviable task of trying to fulfill a dream in a world that had moved on forever from mid-1930s. Yet this is what his followers hoped he would do. That was the standard which Drew Western held him to. It was the wrong standard.

Arguably President would have done far better to have simply forgotten FDR and tried to be Barack Obama. Tried to be President to all the people to the best of his ability and with advantage listened to the dictates of common sense.  Thomas Jefferson once observed that “that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;  that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.” Hear, hear.

Maybe the reason Obama failed is because he tried to relive the dreams of those whose time has passed.

If America is ever to successfully face the challenges ahead of it, the place to start is the window and the calendar, from the here and now. It must first free itself of the temptation to treat all times and places as occasions to fulfill a perfect moment. No man can start the Presidency seeking to fill the shoes of a dead man.  No one can enter the Oval Office hoping to be someone else. He must resolve to walk his own steps or forever forfeit the claim to being President of the United States.

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