Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn’t always “Franklin D. Roosevelt.”
As President Barack Obama delivers his State of Union Address on Tuesday and devises his reelection strategy, he should understand the implications of this statement and act on them. Whether this election will have major consequences for our future and what Obama’s place in history will be could both depend on the willingness of the president and Democrats to do so.
Obama and his advisers are likely tempted to opt for a stand-pat reelection effort because of the improving unemployment numbers. That may be enough to get him reelected. But it won’t be the sort of transformative election that could secure his place in history as a great president — which acting on that FDR statement could achieve.
To understand why, look to the seemingly schizophrenic results of two recent polls. A December Gallup Poll found that 64 percent of Americans see Big Government as the nation’s largest threat, while only 26 percent see Big Business as the greatest threat.
A month earlier, however, 75 percent of Americans surveyed in a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll said that “the current economic structure of the country is out of balance and favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country,” the “power of major banks and corporations” needs to be reduced and the rich should not receive tax breaks. Sixty percent strongly agreed with this. Only 12 percent disagreed, 6 percent strongly.
How can overwhelming majorities believe both that the power of Big Business needs to be reduced and Big Government is a greater threat than Big Business?
The answer is in another response in that November poll: 74 percent said Obama has “fallen short” of expectations in “improving oversight of Wall Street and the banks.” Only 18 percent said he lived up to expectations. By 66 percent to 29 percent, respondents said Obama hasn’t lived up to their expectations in “standing up to Big Business and special interests.”
So the reason most Americans fear Big Government more than Big Business is that the former has failed to control the latter — and instead assumed the role of enabler.
If Obama were to stand up to big business, the public’s view of government — and him — could improve rapidly.
That brings us back to the statement above about Roosevelt and how it affects the 2012 elections — since high, if declining, unemployment is probably the greatest obstacle to Obama’s reelection. No president for more than 70 years has been reelected with unemployment above 7.5 percent — as it is likely to be in November.
If we go a little further back, however, unemployment was at 16.9 percent in 1936. FDR was reelected that year with 60.8 percent of the popular vote, carrying all but two states and winning the Electoral College vote 523 to 8.
But the Roosevelt who won that landslide — despite an unemployment rate nearly twice what it is now — was not the FDR of 1932, or even 1933. He was the man we now think of as “Franklin D. Roosevelt” — a role he took on in 1935 and 1936.
Prior to his 1932 election, Roosevelt was famously described by Walter Lippmann as “an excessively cautious politician” who was “no crusader,” “no enemy of entrenched privilege.” That characterization seems to fit President Obama so far — even if it did not fit 2007-08 Candidate Obama.
At the start of his presidency, FDR also sought consensus — and got a great deal of it. In his inaugural address, he denounced the “money changers,” but he was simultaneously consulting with leading financiers about how to solve the banking crisis. Roosevelt didn’t turn on the banks, even though there was overwhelming public opposition to them.
“The president drove the money changers out of the Capitol on March 4,” Rep. William Lemke of North Dakota complained, “and they were all back on the 9th.”
There were important accomplishments during the first two years of the Roosevelt administration — as there were in the first two years of the Obama administration. But by 1935, many Americans began thinking that the New Deal was not doing enough to restore balance in the economy by curbing the power of the rich, the big banks and corporations.
It was progressive agitation, union activities and popular movements (collectively identified as “Thunder on the Left”) in 1934 and 1935 — combined with FDR’s belated realization that Big Business wasn’t going to play ball with him — that ultimately led Roosevelt to shift to more progressive policies and proposals.
The American Liberty League, formed by business and conservative opponents of the New Deal, was established in 1934 “to combat radicalism, preserve property rights [and] uphold and preserve the Constitution.” These backers were the Koch brothers of that era, trying to convince Americans that the president was a socialist.
Always a savvy pragmatist, FDR finally realized it was impossible to compromise with those who refuse to compromise. He also saw that he needed to move left to catch up with his “followers,” who were demanding more vigorous action on behalf of the vast majority of Americans struggling in the Great Depression.
Roosevelt was “leading from behind.” He abandoned consensus and compromise, and instead cast his lot with the poor, unions and minorities, and against the corporate and financial interests — becoming the “Franklin D. Roosevelt” we know today.
FDR launched his 1936 reelection campaign by warning against a dictatorship by the over-privileged and declaring that private enterprise had become “too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise.”
“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America,” he said, expressing sentiments that could resonate now. “What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.”
Running against economic royalists, Roosevelt won reelection in one of the largest landslides in U.S. history. The Democrats, moreover, won 77 percent of the House seats and increased their hold on the Senate to 79 percent.
As 2012 begins, such a resounding victory for Obama and the Democrats looks impossible. Whether it is depends on which past reelection campaign recipe Obama decides to follow.
Emulating Harry S. Truman’s 1948 run against the “Do Nothing” Republican Congress is a formula that is likely to succeed. But, by itself, it is unlikely to produce a major, realigning victory.
But if Obama instead picks up FDR’s 1936 cookbook, he could find that the ingredients are available for a Democratic landslide. The November poll shows that, by 76 percent to 12 percent, Americans oppose the economic policies championed by the Republicans and want the economic policies that progressives advocate: “We are the 76 percent who realize that we are part of the 99 percent.”
For their part, Republicans seem to be declaring something like: “We are the 12 percent that sides with the 1 percent.”
Republicans are falling all over one another in a mad — literally mad — rush to align themselves with the 12 percent who stand with the rich, banks and corporations. Yet two-thirds to three-quarters of Americans are disappointed that Obama hasn’t done enough to oppose those same interests.
Can Obama catch up to his “followers” — as FDR did in 1936?
To assure that Obama reprises FDR’s successful 1936 strategy, progressives must pressure the president and his party to run a campaign pledging to implement policies in line with what an overwhelming majority of Americans say they want.
There is a famous story of a union leader who met with FDR to outline the arguments for a progressive program. “I agree with everything you said,” Roosevelt responded. “Now go out and make me do it.”
Conservatives used to say: “Let Reagan be Reagan.” The progressive slogan today should be: “MAKE Obama Be ‘Obama’” — the man we imagined him to be when we elected him.
That’s what three-quarters of the American people want. If Obama and Democrats listen, they might win a historic victory this year.