Whenever there is a setback to a Democratic Administration, there is a tendency to unfavorably contrast Obama to caricatures of FDR. Or LBJ. Or JFK. Or Bill Clinton. Each and every pundit starts their Democratic Presidents Fantasy League (DPFL) emerges where past presidents and then Democratic parties of their time are no longer empirically judged and never lose points for betraying the liberals of their time. On top of that, they receive bonus points for wielding the power of mythical Excalibur of US Presidential politics: the “bully pulpit”. Drew Westen started the NYT DPFL using a Bedtime Stories Told Scoring System which ignores the role race plays in the Obama presidency and gives big points for stories a president tells. The harsh reality is storytelling doesn’t really convince the public you’re right and only certain parts of the Democratic party are really hearing your stories from a liberal point of view:
“Back in 1984, just 26 percent of the people voting Democratic for Congress said they were liberals. . .that fraction has now risen to 41 percent.”
These numbers explain a lot. John Boehner governs like a guy who speaks for Republican voters who are 67 percent conservative. Obama governs like a guy who speaks for voters who are just 41 percent liberal.
So Westen’s scoring is skewed. Why? The ideological makeup of the Democratic party is (and has been) mostly moderates, a lot of liberals, and a solid minority of conservatives. The moderates and conservatives who are Democrats may not respond to the liberal narrative Westen feels we Democrats (who he equates with liberals) need to hear.
Cornel West, has started a DPFL using the FDR Scoring System:
It was a chat that found West imparting wisdom about the critical importance of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) Works Projects Administration (WPA) as an example from which America could be learning. He also provided some illumination as to why Obama has not chosen the course of reigniting FDR’s grand civic plan in a way that is appropriately nuanced for today.
Well, it seems FDR wasn’t the liberal invincible bully pulpit angel everyone makes him out to be. In 1938, some of his New Deal passed between 1933 and 1936, was repealed or weakened by a wave of Republicans and Conservative Democrats who (surprise) voted together to repeal or strike down some of his liberal policies in coming years.
In the hard-fought 1938 congressional elections, the Republicans scored major gains in both houses, picking up six Senate seats and 80 House seats. Thereafter the conservative Democrats and Republicans in both Houses of Congress would often vote together on major economic issues, thus defeating many proposals by liberal Democrats. A handful of liberal measures, notably the minimum wage laws, did pass when the Conservative Coalition split.
Liberals should remember, the Democratic Party and FDR were very much leaders of their time, not ours. US Olympic Legend, Jesse Owens, harbored no love for FDR or Truman. And FDR and Truman’s snub of Owens seems a bit more substantial than Obama’s imagined snub of West.
[Jesse] Owens said, “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” On the other hand, Hitler sent Owens a commemorative inscribed cabinet photograph of himself. Jesse Owens was never invited to the White House nor were honors bestowed upon him by president Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) or his successor Harry S. Truman during their terms. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower honored Owens by naming him an “Ambassador of Sports.”
And there’s more:
Although northern white liberals were theoretically sympathetic to the plight of African Americans, Poole says, their primary aim was to save the American economy by salvaging the pride of America’s “essential” white male industrial workers. The liberal framers of the Social Security Act elevated the status of Unemployment Insurance and Social Security–and the white workers they were designed to serve–by differentiating them from welfare programs, which served black workers.
Not only FDR, but liberals were not liberal for enough to Jesse Owens or black workers of FDR’s time. And in fact members of the left in FDR’s time weren’t too hype on the New Deal, contrary to Westen’s assertions. The country’s government can work better, the administration can work better, but while comparing Obama to previous Democratic POTUS’s we should be careful not to re-invent predecessors or imagine a US government that never existed.
They all had their warts, and no Democratic President was or will be at the very left of their governing coalitions and significant valuable progress was still made by each, including Presidents FDR and Obama. But they are both Democrats.
For being President during the worst economy since the depression, he’s holding strong with liberal support. The public favors Obama after the debt ceiling debate.
The sky is dark, but it’s not falling.