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How Bold Is Barack? | The Nation

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How Bold Is Barack?

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This just in: I've obtained a secret military report to the president musing that if only Iran could enjoy a "government based upon the consent of the governed and of a system of free enterprise," its people could achieve "the fulfillment of the principles of justice, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom from want, equality of opportunity, and to a degree, freedom from fear." Unfortunately, State Department sources dismiss the report as so much "messianic global baloney."

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

OK, wait a minute. I see the report was written in 1943 and was sent to President Roosevelt by Gen. Patrick Hurley. The complainer at State was the then-assistant secretary, Dean Acheson. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Historical analogies are always imperfect, but one cannot help but be impressed by the degree to which the challenges and opportunities facing the Obama administration mirror those initially facing FDR. David Woolner of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute noted the validity of the comparison at a conference I recently attended in Hyde Park. "Both leaders have had to cope with an unprecedented global financial crisis, a deteriorating economy, high unemployment and an electorate steeped in fear and apprehension about the future. Both men have also had to contend with a worldwide security crisis, inspired in FDR's case by the pernicious ideology of fascism and in President Obama's by the rise of a deadly form of international terrorism."

Time also devoted its Independence Day cover package to the FDR/BHO analogy. Much of it is worthwhile--but being Time, quite a bit is misleading, particularly Amity Shlaes's all but incoherent attack on the New Deal--and leaves the overall impression that FDR faced a more intense crisis than Obama, to which he responded with way more audacity. As Adam Cohen notes, when FDR was inaugurated on March 4, 1933, all forty-eight states had ordered their banks closed. Within days, the administration had pushed its Emergency Banking Act through the House, although no finished copies of the legislation existed. Overseas, storm clouds were gathering over Berlin, Rome and Tokyo posing dangers to Western civilization that dwarfed anything we face today.

FDR's record was obviously a mixed one. Much of what he did failed, and his administration did not succeed in ending the Great Depression. What it did succeed in doing, as historian David Kennedy points out, was to lay the groundwork for the decades of prosperity that followed World War II. Kennedy writes, "All the major New Deal reforms that endured had a common purpose...to temper for generations thereafter what F.D.R. called the 'hazards and vicissitudes' of life. By creating the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the New Deal provided more confidence to bank depositors. With the Securities and Exchange Commission, it guaranteed more reliable information for investors. The Federal Housing Administration gave more protection to mortgage lenders and thus more options to home buyers. The National Labor Relations Board brought more stability to dealings between capital and labor. The Fair Labor Standards Act ensured more predictable wages for the most vulnerable workers. And Social Security offered at least a minimal safety net for both the unemployed and the elderly."

Though he is revered by liberals today, Roosevelt was essentially anti-ideological, committed only to what he called "bold, persistent experimentation." Obama, too, is a pragmatist as well as an experimentalist. But is he sufficiently bold to face the myriad crises left him by eight years of the most destructive presidential rule in America's history?

Obama embraced the enormously expensive Bush TARP plan to save Wall Street, but his stimulus plan to help Main Street proved far less ambitious. A bolder approach would have demanded that public investment--focusing on green energy, school construction and mass transit--be of equivalent scope and scale. Much the same can be said of the administration's minimalist approach to reregulating the banking sector, its refusal to consider any kind of single-payer healthcare plan and its polluter-friendly cap-and-trade approach to reducing climate change.

Obama has taken some brave steps in foreign affairs, including his Cairo University speech, in which he not only reached out to a billion Muslims around the world but demanded that Israel cease expanding illegal settlements. But President Obama has proffered far less audacious proposals than we were led to expect from candidate Obama. His approach to civil liberties, for instance, is difficult to distinguish from that of the Bush administration--and may even include indefinite detention without trial. And as Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times, "The Obama White House in particular is reluctant to embrace gay rights issues now, officials there say, because they do not want to provide social conservatives a rallying cry while the president is trying to assemble legislative coalitions on healthcare and other initiatives."

Again, the FDR/BHO analogy is imperfect. FDR did not face an army of lobbyists seeking to thwart his every move. Perhaps more important, he did not have to succeed in today's media environment, in which nut cases like Limbaugh/O'Reilly/Hannity manage to set the terms of debate. As sage Washington Post pundit E.J. Dionne Jr. explains, the MSM's proclivity for giving the "right wing's rants...wall-to-wall airtime" gives its ignorance and recidivism legitimacy despite its failure under Bush as well as its lack of support among the larger public. The net result is a political discourse that ranges "from the moderate left to the far right" with no room for the kind of bold "persistent experimentation" needed to rescue America from the catastrophes it faces after eight years of incompetence, extremism and corruption enabled by a proudly clueless but uneducable punditocracy.

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