The man has not yet taken the oath of office and already there are reports of soon-to-be-president Obama using the veto power. Talk has it he is threatening to nix a bill that would deprive him of the second half of the $700 billion TARP money.
Oh, what a difference seventy-six years makes. Both Barack Obama and Franklin Roosevelt entered office in times of crisis. On March 4, 1933, Roosevelt began the first of his four terms with something approaching unlimited power. On Tuesday, Barack Obama will have already begun sparring and tussling with various factions that show few signs of rolling over for the new president.
Roosevelt won the presidency with a larger percentage of the vote than Obama, and the 1933 Republicans barely had 100 members in the House of Representatives. But the numbers do not describe the atmosphere of panic, fear and confusion borne of millions out of work, other millions who’d lost their life savings as thousands of banks collapsed and appalling armies of roving destitute people who had begun to appear on the nation’s streets.
For millions of Americans back then, the choice was to support Franklin Roosevelt or fall into the abyss. Things had reached such a point even before Roosevelt had taken office that Walter Lippmann, the premier newspaper columnist in an era when columnists counted, visited the president-elect to tell him, “The situation is critical, Franklin. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial power.”
The propertied classes, diminished though they may have been by 1933, were in a fugue state. People talked about the threat of revolution. Adolf Berle, one of Roosevelt’s closest collaborators, warned him after his election that he was looking at the possibility of an honest-to-God revolution (source: Freedom from Fear by David M. Kennedy, Oxford 1999).
In 2009 there is speculation that free-market capitalism as we have known it is about to be modified and regulated, but in those first years of the Depression people were afraid capitalism of any or all sorts was kaput and democracy along with it.
In the political atmosphere prevailing in the days immediately after FDR moved into the White House, the new president could have sent his laundry list up to Congress and it would have passed it in a matter of hours. In fact, the administration’s first bill was introduced in the House at 1 PM and was signed into law seven hours later.
A few days after his inauguration, Roosevelt sent up a bill asking for the authority to cut a half-billion dollars, a staggering sum then, from the federal budget. The bill included such politically suicidal provisions as one lopping off nearly 50 percent in payments to World War I veterans. The Democrats in Congress nearly choked on it, but at that point one way or another Roosevelt could get anything he wanted. Obama will not.
Not long after taking such huge whacks out of the budget, Roosevelt did a complete reversal and began spending money as fast as he could get it out of Congress, which was plenty fast. By June 16 of the same year Roosevelt had sent to Congress no less than fifteen major pieces of legislation and had the pleasure of signing every one of them into law. Such a pleasure will be denied President Obama, of that you may be sure.
He will not have that pleasure because while people are terribly worried and are reeling from the loss of jobs, income, savings and wealth, as of now, at least, they are in incomparably better shape than most people were when Roosevelt took office. As of now, at least, most people still do have jobs.
Buttressing Roosevelt’s power were the marginal but highly visible left- and right-wing groups skulking or parading or agitating across the country. The Communist Party, the Socialist Party, various anarchist organizations were doing their best to rouse the masses. It would not be long before America would be plagued by right-wing fascist groups such as the German American Bund and a variety of anti-Semitic bully boy organizations. For the great majority not thus inclined there was nothing else to do but to back Roosevelt and hope he got it right.
Whether FDR did get it right during the famous first 100 Days was a matter of dispute then and even now. Walter Shepard, a president of the American Political Science Association, pronounced in 1934 that, “The ideology of the New Deal is illogical, inconsistent and turbid.” The same year, Lewis Mumford, one of the most respected intellectuals of the period, wrote that the work of the 100 Days was, “Aimless experiment, sporadic patchwork, a total indifference to guiding principles or definite goals” (as quoted in Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age by Daniel T. Rodgers, Belknap Harvard, 1998).
If Obama does not measure up to Roosevelt in his own first 100 days, there is a reason for it and we may have reason to be thankful.