Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Why Obama Could Never Be FDR

Although they emerged into the Presidency seventy-six years apart, at first glance, the similarities are there: two cosmopolitan Presidents from large cities coming to power in the midst of widespread economic catastrophe, on the heels of deeply unpopular, corporatist RepubliCon predecessors. Surely President Obama's tenure will be judged by some of the same historical precedents set up by FDR, right? Both needed to create jobs, move the country out of economic malaise, and rebuild a sense of American unity that had been deeply damaged on the heels of long-term conservative and corporate dominance alluded to in the term "gilded age."

Forgetting, for the purposes of this post, whether or not Obama actually WANTS to be the new FDR - a question upon which I believe the jury is still somewhat "out" - I will gingerly propose here that there is no way on God's green earth that Barack Obama could ever be the next Franklin Roosevelt, even if he put the entire power of his considerable will and intellect into working towards this wild fantasy.

And why not? Well basically I don't think comparisons between the two are fair, and here's the crux of the issue. President Obama is a black man from lower-middle class background. And FDR was a white man from a rich and powerful family.

No I didn't turn racist overnight. I don't believe that a black President is less capable of enacting transformational change, or less capable of governing in hard times. The facts here have nothing to do with capacity, and everything to do with the tenacity and sheer vehemence of the opposition.

The second President Roosevelt was a rich white man from a patrician family . . . a man whose uncle had served as President, a man as familiar to the upper crust of the American power elite as was the practice of keeping servants and second homes upstate, and personal ownership of vast swaths of capital and real estate. The simple fact is that Obama has none of these advantages. When Roosevelt became President in 1932 after his stint as Governor of America's most populous state at the time, New York, the American power elite had been dealing, for better or for worse, with Roosevelts for forty years already, if not much longer. His paternal Grandfather, Warren Delano II, was directly related to Pilgrims who had come on The Mayflower; and his paternal grandmother, Sara Ann Delano, was a cousin of President James Monroe's wife. And need we even mention FDR's swashbuckling uncle, Teddy, who became the first Roosevelt president in 1901?

Comparing the performance of Barack Obama to FDR is like comparing the college performance of an academically high-end kid from the inner city to the an equally academically high-end kid from the wealthiest suburb in America. Sure, they may both be academically high-end, but one has been given every advantage in life, and one has been given every disadvantage.

FDR NEVER faced the shrieking racism of America's institutionalized reactionaries. Sure there were the Father Coughlins of FDR's day, but even the most outrageous of FDR's critics, as far as I'm aware, never questioned whether or not FDR was legally qualified to serve as President, as the thinly-veiled racists in Obama's opposition have repeatedly been known to do with their seemingly ENDLESS demands for the the "original birth certificate . . ." an item which by the way, roughly 95 out of 100 Americans, including yours truly, probably do not have laying around the house. (In fact, given their set-your-watch-by-it penchant for rank hypocrisy, I'd be willing to personally guarantee that 99% (not 95%) of the Tea Party hate-mongers demanding to see the President's original, paper-copy birth certificate don't have theirs either.)

With their shady insinuations that Obama is a Muslim, and their vague allusions to the President's Kenyan father, his "anti-colonialist leanings" - as if anti-colonialism were such a bad thing - the President's many enemies have used their propagandists at Fox News to propagate outrageous lies, smears, and misinformation that a white man from a rich family would NEVER have had to endure. Indeed, we can safely assume that FDR - having dealt and perhaps dined with wealthy corporatists his entire life - probably spoke their language, knew their customs, could talk yachting if necessary, etc. While FDR was a good man with great intentions who was able to use his family name and his inherent connections to the power elite to propel himself to the Presidency, Barack Obama simply had none of these advantages.

Now as I am not a professional historian, this gets to a realm of some speculation; but once President, it's quite rational to suppose that FDR may have been able to cajole and coax his opposition along in a way that President Obama could never hope to do. FDR spoke the language and knew the customs of wealthy corporatists . . . he may have known some of his opponents as equals for his entire life. Can the same really be said for President Obama?

No, these two men are coming from entirely different circumstances, and comparing the two Presidencies is unfair. Dealing with the mega-wealthy power elite is an entirely different matter when you're one of them. You can't expect an average citizen, no matter how talented, no matter how eloquent or intelligent - and a black man, no less, whose powerful opposition practically owns the media and is running a despicably racist, nationwide smear campaign - to be able to affect meaningful progressive change in the same way that a well-meaning millionaire from an ultra-powerful family can. Our top-down society simply doesn't work that way.

So where does that leave us? With diminished expectations I suppose . . . but then . . . what else is new? We live in an era of diminished expectations. I suppose we can only hope that the President's heart is in the right place and that, to the maximum extent possible, he's trying to wring progressive droplets out of this incredibly difficult situation. With the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell," the attempt to pass the DREAM Act, the success of the new START Nuclear Arms reduction treaty, and the recent passage of the 9-11 First Responders' Health Care bill, I guess there is some reason to hope.

But only history will tell us if Obama is really going to be able to live up to even a fraction of kind the of transformational change he spoke of . . . the odds against this are of course impossibly high. But looking for an FDR-type of sea change out of this President . . . well I just don't think it's fair, or logical.


John Stoner said...

well, yeah, but look at Congress at the time too: The House was 72.4% Democrats, 26.4% Republican, and 1.2% other. It was easier for FDR to get things through that body.

I think the bigger part of it is that the right wing has played the long game since the 1960's and the left has been responding tactically. And Congress is much more dysfunctional than before.

Downtown Dave said...

True on all fronts, John. It is ESPECIALLY true that Congress is far more dysfunctional than it once was, and that . . . . really is saying something.