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Friday
Nov052010

Obama and the FDR Route

I’ve still got a post in the hopper on education and the school system, but I’d like to take the time for a bit of a digression on the 2010 elections.  Mostly because of this interesting comment by Robert Reich:

Some people are going to tell President Obama that Bill Clinton was reelected in 1996 because he moved to the center, and Obama should, too. But Clinton was really reelected because by 1996, the economy had come roaring back to life.

[…]

The relevant political lesson isn’t Bill Clinton in 1996. It’s Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. By 1936, the Great Depression was entering its eighth year. Roosevelt had already been president for four of them. Yet he won the biggest electoral victory since the start of the two-party system in the 1850s.

How? He shifted the debate from his failure to get the economy moving to the irresponsibility of his opponents. Republicans, he said, stood for “business and financial monopoly, speculation, and reckless banking.” And Roosevelt made clear his opponents wanted to stop him from helping ordinary Americans. “Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today,” he thundered. “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

The lead of that piece quotes Clinton in contrast to the FDR strategy:

 I want us to forge a partnership to produce results for the American people.

Compare that to Obama’s remarks in the aftermath of the election:

I’m not so naïve as to think that everybody will put politics aside until then, but I do hope to make progress on the very serious problems facing us right now. And that’s going to require all of us, including me, to work harder at building consensus.

In part, I agree with Reich.  I don’t think the “double down on consensus building” approach in 2010-2012 will work any better than the same approach 2008-2010.  However, the Roosevelt comparison is equally poor.  Let me count the ways:

The Democrats gained seats in ‘32 and ‘34 (and were on their way to doing well in ‘36).  They had a strong majority in both houses by ‘32.  Roosevelt’s “New Deal” programs started in ‘33.  So ‘36 Roosevelt was winning in a way that Obama is currently not.  Easy to take a haters gonna hate line when you’re on top.  You might be able to do it if you were selling yourself as a scrappy (but right) underdog.  But Obama hasn’t been selling himself as a scrappy underdog since the election, and even then he was using “we’re all in this together” rhetoric.

A better comparison would be Roosevelt ‘40.  After all, the Democrats took a big hit in ‘38 because the economy was still weak.  Sounds familiar.  Even more familiar (PDF, via Wikipedia):

When the Gallup poll in 1939 asked, ‘Do you think the attitude of the Roosevelt administration toward business is delaying business recovery?’ the American people responded ‘yes’ by a margin of more than two-to-one. The business community felt even more strongly so.

But even then, Roosevelt had quite a few things  going for him that Obama does not:

  1. He had far better access to the media than his opponent.
  2. The Democrats still had control of both houses, whereas Democrats in 2010 don’t have control of the House and only have enough control of the Senate to not do things.
  3. War was looming, when it came to having an external enemy to convince the American people that changing course on domestic policy is not the relevant issue, you couldn’t do better.  (Heck, the guy is still a favorite political distraction.)
  4. People had a negative sentiment for “big business” that they don’t today.  (They felt that Roosevelt ‘40 was “delaying business recovery”, but that didn’t mean a lot of public sentiment behind deregulation or repealing New Deal programs.)  Today, a lot of the same anger is directed into anti-government sentiment.  Among other fears.
  5. The Democrats of today aren’t credible as an anti-Wall-Street party.  Sure, they’re a bit better in supporting higher taxes on the top income bracket, which would discourage some of the reckless compensation schemes featured prominently in the current crisis.  The Republicans were all over deregulation.  But Clinton passed NAFTA and Gramm–Leach–Bliley and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act and reappointed Greenspan, while Obama is all Summers Geithner Bernanke and the best he can get in terms of big liberal reforms is basically the health care plan proposed by Republicans in 1994 and a bit more consumer protection for credit cards.

So Clinton ‘94-96 isn’t the right lesson.  But FDR ‘34-36 (or even ‘38-40) isn’t the right answer either.  And that’s obvious enough that I don’t know why Robert Reich would think so either, except for wishful thinking that Obama will change his strategy completely and start acting like FDR.  Wishful thinking more powered by a positive sentiment about FDR than a reasonable belief that such a strategy would work in this situation.

As for the Republicans, I’ll quote Senator Mitch McConnell:

Over the past week, some have said it was indelicate of me to suggest that our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office.  But the fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill, to end the bailouts, cut spending and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things.

Sadly, I think Obama’s 2010-2012 strategy will likely be similar to his 2008-2010 strategy, with even more modest results.  And if the 2012 election is a straight-up Obama versus centrist Republican contest, I predict Obama will lose (and that the Republicans will subsequently forget all about ending the bailouts, cutting spending, and shrinking the size and scope of government).  Whether healthcare reform is repealed will depend on how much popularity it has gained by 2012, which I can’t accurately predict.  (If repealed, it will probably not be replaced at all.  If replaced, it will likely be replaced by something rather similar.)

Of course, it’s not at all guaranteed that the 2012 presidential election will be straight-up anything.

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