This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
On March 4, 1933, the day he took office, Franklin Roosevelt excoriated the “money changers” who “have fled from their high seats in the temples of our civilization [because…] they know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision and where there is no vision, the people perish.”
Rhetoric, however, is only rhetoric. According to one skeptical Congressional observer of FDR’s first inaugural address, “The President drove the money-changers out of the Capitol on March 4th–and they were all back on the 9th.”
That was essentially true. It was what happened after that, in the midst of the Great Depression, which set the New Deal on a course that is the mirror image of the direction in which the Obama administration seems headed.
Buoyed by great expectations when he assumed office, Barack Obama has so far revealed himself to be an unfolding disappointment. On arrival, expectations were far lower for FDR, who was not considered extraordinary at all–until he actually did something extraordinary.
The great expectations of 2009 are, only a year later, beginning to smell like a pile of dead fish with new rhetoric–including populist-style attacks on villainous bankers that sound fake (or cynically pandering) when uttered by Obama’s brainiacs–layered on top of the pile like deodorant. Meanwhile, the country is suffering through a recovery that isn’t a recovery unless you happen to be a banker, and the administration stands by, too politically or intellectually inhibited or incapacitated to do much of anything about it. A year into “change we can believe in” and the new regime, once so flush with power and the promise of big doings, seems exhausted, vulnerable, and afraid. A year into the New Deal–indeed a mere 100 days into Roosevelt’s era–change, whether you believed in it or not, clearly had the wind at its back.
A Tale of Two Presidencies
If, a few days after Roosevelt pronounced them ex-communicant, the “money-changers” were back inside the temple–“temple,” by the way, was how the Federal Reserve used to be known before its recent fall from grace–no one was too surprised. He, like Obama, was initially worried about alienating big business and high finance. He arrived in the Oval Office, in fact, still a prisoner of his own past and the country’s. He believed, for example, in the then-orthodox wisdom of balancing the budget and would never entirely abandon that faith.
Not long before he assumed office, his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, vetoed a bill calling for the accelerated payment of bonuses to World War I veterans. Many of them had only recently gathered in makeshift tents on Anacostia Flats in Washington, DC, an army of the destitute, to plead their case. Hoover, to his lasting dishonor, ordered Army Chief of Staff General Douglas McArthur to have their tents set on fire and drive them away at bayonet point. Not long after FDR took the oath of office, he vetoed the same bill. He shared, as well, in a broad cultural repugnance for what was then called “the dole,” and today is known as “welfare.”