President Obama is interrupting his long vacation to bus across the battleground states of the Midwest this week, on an officially “non-political” journey that his aides obviously hope will renew a connection with the people who overwhelmingly elected him president in 2008. It is an essential endeavor, as Obama’s uncertain tenure has frustrated voters who once saw him as a transformational leader but now wonder whether there is a point to his presidency.
The disconnect between Obama and his base has grown more profound this year, as he has focused on the compromises of Washington while working people in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and other states have engaged in “Which side are you on?” fights against a Republican austerity agenda that threatens the very underpinnings of civil society and democratic experiment.
Obama’s absence from the scene has raised questions about how the man who once promised to march with workers in defense of collective bargaining rights (“If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself, I’ll will walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States of America. Because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner.”) could remain so distant from the struggles that matter most.
Nothing summed up the disconnection between Obama and the base so thoroughly as White House spokesman Jay Carney’s response to a question about last week’s Wisconsin recall elections. Even as the New York Times hailed the recall results as an “impressive” signal regarding voter opposition to unionbusting, while arguing that “voters around the country who oppose the widespread efforts to undermine public unions—largely financed by corporate interests—should draw strength from Tuesday’s success,” Carney said he did not know if Obama was paying attention.
Obama’s bus trip this week will bring him to an Iowa town within twenty miles of the Wisconsin border on Tuesday. That’s the same day that two Wisconsin Democratic state senators who sided with labor last winter face recalls mounted by the Republican Party and national conservative groups.
But Obama’s team has made no announcement of plans to cross the line into the battleground state.
Contrast Obama’s approach with that of the president who defined the modern Democratic Party.
Seventy-seven years to the day before Wisconsin’s recall voting, Roosevelt appeared at an August 9, 1934, rally in Green Bay.
Like Obama, FDR had been elected on a promise of “hope” and “change.”
Like Obama, FDR had tried with mixed success to deliver on that promise.
The thirty-second president went to Green Bay to explain to a crowd of sympathetic but worried Wisconsinites that the economic battles of the moment needed to be seen in the perspective of the great American contest between a privileged few that engaged in the “private means of exploitation” and the great many that had “waged a long and bitter fight for [their] rights.”
Roosevelt recalled that the Revolution was a struggle “against those forces which disregard human cooperation and human rights in seeking that kind of individual profit which is gained at the expense of his fellows.”
The old fight between patriotic proponents of economic justice and the Tory defenders of economic royalism had, Roosevelt argued, come to a head with the arrival of the Great Depression.
Recalling the 1932 election that swept Democrats to power and ushered in the New Deal era, the president argued, “In the great national movement that culminated over a year ago, people joined with enthusiasm. They lent hand and voice to the common cause, irrespective of many older political traditions. They saw the dawn of a new day. They were on the march; they were coming back into the possession of their own home land.”
“As the humble instruments of their vision and their power, those of us who were chosen to serve them in 1932 turned to the great task,” Roosevelt continued. “In one year and five months, the people of the United States have received at least a partial answer to their demands for action; and neither the demand nor the action has reached the end of the road.”
The primary barrier to action, the president explained, was erected by those who still entertained the fantasy that FDR could restore confidence only by “tell[ing] the people of the United States that all supervision by all forms of Government, Federal and State, over all forms of human activity called business should be forthwith abolished.”
So, like Obama, Roosevelt faced an opposition that claimed government was the problem.
Unlike Obama, however, Roosevelt refused to even entertain—let alone embrace—the absurd constructs of the private-sector fabulists who FDR said “would repeal all laws, State or national, which regulate business—that a utility could henceforth charge any rate, unreasonable or otherwise; that the railroads could go back to rebates and other secret agreements; that the processors of food stuffs could disregard all rules of health and of good faith; that the unregulated wild-cat banking of a century ago could be restored; that fraudulent securities and watered stock could be palmed off on the public; that stock manipulation which caused panics and enriched insiders could go unchecked.”
“In fact,” the president continued, “if we were to listen to [the anti-government crowd], the old law of the tooth and the claw would reign in our Nation once more.”
With those words, Roosevelt took a side.
He did not imagine the possibility of compromise with those who wanted to return to the “tooth and claw” past.
Obama needs to do the same thing. He needs to recognize the seriousness of the contemporary economic debate. And he needs to take a side, standing against today’s Tories and for the new order where it is understood that the purpose of government is to achieve “the improved conditions of the whole population and not a small fraction thereof.”
Were Obama to take a similar stand this week, were he to echo Roosevelt’s call for economic justice, the mood would shift—in Wisconsin and nationally—because voters would know, finally, which side their president is on.