Sunday, July 25, 2010

Obama and FDR

This is something I've been thinking about for some time now. I'm not pivoting off of any particular argument here, but after reading too many blog posts and comments about how Barack Obama should be like FDR I simply feel compelled to say that these comparisons are faulty on a number of levels. They take many of the wrong lessons from Roosevelt's term and simply don't take into consideration the vastly different contexts in which the two men lived and governed. This is not to diminish Roosevelt's accomplishments in any way, so much as to say that there are limited lessons to be taken from a man first elected to office nearly 80 years ago. There are timeless lessons here, of course, but what's right for one time isn't what's right for another.

I don't want to make a super-long essay out of this. Obama has been pretty successful as president so far--he's gotten much of what he wanted, and while the stimulus turned out to be insufficiently ambitious it was largely responsible for keeping the economy from completely collapsing. In general terms, he's experiencing the same sort of squeezing pressures that most first-term presidents wind up facing--an angry and vituperative opposition, a frustrated and disappointed political base, and a public that is having second thoughts about the new direction in which Obama is taking the country. This is par for the course. In fact, it's more the rule than the exception. Bush 43, John Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt are among the only exceptions that I'm aware of, and all are exceptions that prove the rule, as all three were helped politically by a trend of unity after traumatic disasters--9/11 for Bush, the Cuban Missile Crisis for JFK, and Hoover's Depression for Roosevelt. The 2008 financial collapse was definitely traumatic, but it wasn't a Black Friday sort of event and it comes after the travesty of the Bush years, where national unity is elusive as ever. This constrains Obama's options significantly.

Comparing a politician to Roosevelt is sort of like comparing a basketball player to Michael Jordan. It's not really a fair comparison, which is exactly why firebagger types do it. Roosevelt admittedly was great at setting the right tone for his presidency, as a happy warrior fighting for the common man. Obama could have used some more adept image management along Roosevelt's lines, to be sure. But if anything, his first two years have been more progressive than Roosevelt's. There has been no Obama equivalent to the budget-slashing Economy Act, but there has been more progress on gay rights than FDR accomplished for black people, not to mention financial reg reform and health care reform. To say that Obama should focus more on the economy is silly to me as FDR's focus on the economy meant direct control of prices and wages that economists today concede are not good economic practice, as well as public works programs that wouldn't work nearly as well today because of pay differentials. The Civilian Conservation Corps paid $1 a day for work, an incredibly low wage even then. Admittedly, for the 25% of the country that was unemployed, it was way better than nothing, and a great stimulus program in terms of bang-for-the-buck. But since we thankfully don't have 25% unemployment, those programs would probably not be as popular today. This is to say nothing of the advent of public-sector unions, who would invariably try to organize the workers and soon we'd be paying $20 an hour per person to pick up garbage. I'm no economist, but I'm pretty sure that the CCC would be a bit less cost-effective today than it was back in the 1930s.

I haven't agreed with every policy the Obama Administration has put in place. Mostly I've been frustrated by the lack of a clear tone set by the Administration and the laughable poverty of the media efforts they have undertaken. To be fair, though, Roosevelt had an entirely new and powerful medium to take advantage of, while there's nothing remotely like that for Obama. There's less of an excuse on the prior problem, which I'll admit is a fair place for an FDR comparison. I suppose the best explanation is that Obama wasn't as prepared for the presidency as Roosevelt was and, like most presidents, struggled to define himself amidst an ever-expanding and bewildering set of problems, and didn't pivot quickly enough from being an inspiring candidate to being The Man. Again, not an uncommon problem. Clinton is an obvious example, but there are others. I mention Clinton because, in time, he was able to strike a very appealing tone. The two men have somewhat different gifts, but I have little doubt that Obama will find his stride.

And, by the way, this strikes me as a good fight to have:
President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress "are setting the stage for a high-stakes battle over taxes in the final weeks before the November congressional elections, betting that their plan to eliminate tax breaks for the wealthy will resonate with voters who have lost houses and jobs to what many see as an era of Wall Street greed," the Washington Post reports.
Republicans have been able to push regressive tax cuts through in the past because there was a little something in there for average people too. Nobody outside the base really believes what the GOP says about tax cuts for the rich. If the Democrats fight on the terrain of letting taxes on the rich go higher while keeping them lower for everyone else, I think it should go well for them. It's favorable ground for such a fight, and the whole "tax cuts pay for themselves" notion is laughable to most people. Should make for an entertaining showdown.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.