Sunday, August 30, 2009

Obama vs LBJ and FDR: The Flaw in Such Comparisons

While neither article is brand new and cutting edge by now, I've been spending much of my time between calls on this morning's trip to the quarter tree thinking about the differences between the situation in which President Obama is stuck now and the situations in which Presidents (Franklin) Roosevelt and (Lyndon) Johnson were stuck in their own time. This is because of one article by Arianna Huffington, and another by Leslie Parsley.

(There you go, Leslie, you've been just been referenced with Arianna in the same line. ;) )

Both of them make excellent points about the superb political leadership exhibited by FDR and LBJ during their administrations. Roosevelt fought bitterly for every plank of the New Deal, and the most difficult fight was over Social Security. Johnson had to cram the Great Society down the throats of Congress one bill at a time as well. However, both Huffington and Parsley neglect certain other key details of similarity between Obama on the one hand and FDR and LBJ on the other and one massive difference.

Like President Obama now, FDR and LBJ faced considerable difficulty with center-right-to-right insurgents in their own party. During the second phase of the New Deal, the most vociferous resistance came not from the Republican Party but from the right wing of the Democratic Party in the form of 'the American Liberty League' (ironically led by crusading progressive icon Al Smith, Roosevelt's former political archrival in New York, more due to old political grudges against FDR in New York state politics than to genuine ideological opposition)... who filed lawsuits and encouraged state governors to attempt non-compliance with the New Deal. Mark Sanford wasn't inventing anything new, he was copying a Democrat. LBJ's opposition came from the right wing 'Dixiecrat' element of the Democratic Party, led by senators like Robert Byrd (how times change) and Strom Thurmond.

When praise is given to LBJ's amazing skills at wrangling the center and center-right of the party into step with the Democratic Party's left wing, it is deserved. When FDR's leadership and communication skills in rallying much of the nation to his support regardless of political affiliation are praised, this is also deserved. President Obama is, perhaps, falling slightly short in this capacity. I believe that Obama, like FDR, is fundamentally a conservative operating in response to what he feels is a true crisis situation. The problem is that I am not certain the country understands, anymore, that crises are time for action. I find it difficult, completely, to blame Obama for not rallying public support when today's increasingly cynical public is much less willing to offer genuine support. I believe, however, that it is too early to compare Obama negatively to FDR yet. He's passed the stimulus, and the fight for the second New Deal was much harder than the fight for the first... so FDR had to take his lumps there just as Obama is taking his lumps with health care. Nor is the health care fight over, and President Obama could still win.

What is different is that, while the real opponent is the same (the right wing of the Democratic Party is far more powerful in this debate than conservative Republicans), President Obama is not able to avail himself of the same ally that other 'liberal' presidents have been able to access in the past.

FDR was able to ramrod the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) through Congress primarily due to the efforts of one political ally. This was not a Democrat, but rather liberal Republican Senator George Norris of Nebraska. Norris (and then Robert LaFollette Jr, when Norris left the GOP to run as an independent when the pro-Roosevelt faction of the Democratic Party in the Senate offered him committee chairmanships... though Fighting Bob Jr defected to the mainstream Republican camp due to his loyalty to the isolationist cause in 1938) was the leader of the original, pre-WWII 'Roosevelt Republicans.' Liberal Republicans like Norris and LaFollette were necessary for the passage of the New Deal. If the conservative rump of the party had been able to leverage the party to vote in a solid bloc, the votes of conservative Democrats would have ensured that none of the New Deal passed. Certainly not the TVA or Social Security. Republicans, liberal Republicans who bucked their own party to back Roosevelt, are as responsible for these programs as Democrats. Perhaps more, as their votes made the difference.

LBJ, in forcing civil rights legislation and the social safety net through Congress, was also opposed ferociously by the right wing of the Democratic Party. The team of Byrd and Thurmond were fantatically opposed to every one of Johnson's reforms, and the former leader of the liberal Democrats in the Senate (Hubert Humphrey) had been sidelined into the Vice-Presidency. While a young Teddy Kennedy and more nationally renowned (at the time) legislators like Eugene McCarthy picked up Humphrey's slack, Democratic votes alone would not have passed Johnson's bills. The man on whom Johnson was able to call for support, who himself was not in Congress but who influenced the entire left wing of the GOP, was New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. The votes of the 'Rockefeller Republicans' in Congress passed 'liberal Democratic' programs under the Johnson administration and without them, none of them would have passed.

So it is not his personal qualities in which President Obama suffers most by comparison, but the political conditions. There is no 'left wing' of the Republican Party anymore, but the right wing of the Democratic Party is as strong as ever. This means that liberal reform will continue to be difficult regardless of who is president or controls Congress for some years, unless the Midwest and South experience the kind of liberal rennaissance that Kansas and Nebraska and the other Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states underwent during the hard years of the Progressive Era and the Great Depression. I think such a liberal rennaissance is possible, but I don't think liberals are doing enough to encourage it. Nor do I think the centrist rump and right wing fringe of the Democratic Party really want it.

The left needs strong, outspoken, energetic advocates willing to stick to their principles in the manner the right has stuck to its own. They can, through sheer will and time and effort, start to 'sell' liberalism the way Newt Gingrich (who was considered a stereotype Southern Republican and a political joke before becoming Speaker of the House) sold conservatism in the 1990s or Ronald Reagan sold it in the 1980s.

The problem is that far too many of us on the left think that because we are so 'obviously' right in our observations and solutions of society's problems everyone will magically recognize the fact without our needing to go to any effort to prove what we're saying. It's this natural belief that everyone else understands what we're saying that gets leftists the 'elitist' label and makes people vote for George W. Bush over John Kerry. They want us to work for the sale, just like Republicans... and just as we want the guy selling us our car or our life insurance to work for the sale. A good product isn't enough, we have to earn the sale to get America on our side.

In that sense, President Obama has done more to 'earn the sale' than previous Democrats in his position. Whether or not it will be enough, even for the short term, remains to be seen. It isn't as if he is some kind of actual liberal committed unswervingly to liberal policy. So it may be a very small start, even if he wins every fight. It is, however, a start we can build on whatever else happens. It wouldn't be a bad idea for those who want to be the next salesman to start practicing their pitches, just in case.


Leslie Parsley said...

Thanks for the link.

"There is no 'left wing' of the Republican Party anymore, but the right wing of the Democratic Party is as strong as ever."

Hell, there's no Republican center anymore. They've capitulated to the mean right - out of fear it seems - and the Dem rights should just get out of the party altogether.

I am not sour on Obama by any means but sometimes I get an uneasy feeling he's leaving too much up to the kitchen staff when he should be applying the pressure in person.

Anonymous said...

Why don't you contact me thru my email on my blog? : ) LP

The Eclectic Geek said...

"Hell, there's no Republican center anymore. They've capitulated to the mean right - out of fear it seems -"

This is exactly true. The majority of left-and-center Republicans are either out of office, have switched to the Democrats, or are slowly being dragged more and more to the right. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are still worthy of some respect, but I doubt they are committed to health care reform the way George Norris was committed to the TVA.

"I am not sour on Obama by any means but sometimes I get an uneasy feeling he's leaving too much up to the kitchen staff when he should be applying the pressure in person."

I can't completely disagree with this, but I think the real problem is still basically that Obama does not have a deep philosophical commitment to any specific health care reform package, he just has a pragmatic intent to pass some kind of health care reform.