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Obama like FDR? Not at all, it turns out.

By Alexander Heffner,

Alexander Heffner

Remember when Barack Obama was supposed to be the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt?

As the president took office, historians and columnists reveled in the comparison. Historian William E. Leuchtenburg, the author of “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal,” told NPR that he heard echoes of FDR in Obama’s inaugural address. Before that, Time magazine featured the president-elect on its cover, smiling and, FDR-like, smoking a cigarette in a 1930s roadster. “The New New Deal,” the headline proclaimed. And in the essay inside, “The New Liberal Order,” journalist Peter Beinart likened Obama’s coalition to FDR’s and posited that “if [Obama] can do what F.D.R. did — make American capitalism stabler and less savage — he will establish a Democratic majority that dominates U.S. politics for a generation.” Just like FDR.

We still don’t know exactly which former president Obama will most closely resemble. But now, after he has putcuts to Social Security on the table as part of debt negotiations with the GOP, we can finally and definitively nix Roosevelt, the liberal lion of the 20th century, from the list of parallels. Our 44th president is not a champion of liberal reform a la FDR, nor does he live in a political universe in which “bold and persistent experimentation,” as FDR promised in 1932, is even possible. Obama may turn out to be like any of his 43 predecessors — just not Roosevelt.

Not convinced? Begin with FDR’s record.

From his first day in office, Roosevelt was the father of reform. In his portrait of the period, Leuchtenburg, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, defined FDR’s New Deal as a critical turning point in American history. It offered, as Leuchtenburg describes, “deficit spending, a gigantic federal works program, federal housing and slum clearance, the NRA, the TVA, sharply increased income taxes on the wealthy, massive and imaginative relief programs, [and] a national labor relations board with federal sanctions to enforce collective bargaining” — not to mention Social Security.

Until the pendulum swung back during the Reagan revolution and the George W. Bush presidency, FDR’s efforts transformed citizens’ convictions in and expectations of their government. As Leuchtenburg writes, Roosevelt’s tenure “marked a radical departure” from unchecked capitalism by providing every American with at least the minimum standard to live decently.

And then there’s our current president.

Since the Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — which Obama and his advisers seem to have believed, incorrectly, would offer a self-perpetuating boost to the economy — Obama has experimented neither boldly nor persistently with programs on the scale of FDR’s initiatives.

Instead, he threw the stimulus money at the states to do with what they wanted. He has given in to prolonging the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy and is now considering more belt-tightening that would weaken entitlements. And he’s watched as the number of government jobs has shrunk by the thousands. In the budget negotiations, the president has signaled that he would sign off on cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

But we should have known all along. Unlike FDR, who vowed radical measures to fix the depressed economy during his presidential campaign, Obama offered vague bipartisan pledges. In his inaugural address, FDR asserted: “I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require.” Obama echoed nothing of the kind.

Superficial similarities initially sparked the comparisons. Both presidents edited publications while studying at Harvard, both became lawyers, and both have been viewed as talented orators. But any presidential comparison would be fantasy. FDR and Obama have vastly dissimilar political personas, one projecting fierce emotion and the other cool rationalism.

Alan Brinkley, an FDR biographer and a professor of history at Columbia University, said in an interview that “Roosevelt was much more willing to attack his opponents, even when unfairly, to strengthen his political position.”

“Obama’s efforts at reasonable, conciliatory rhetoric have been a failure in this political climate, and he has not yet persuaded me that he has it in him to take on his opponents with the same ferocity that they attack him,” Brinkley said.

H.W. Brands, another Roosevelt biographer, notes that, unlike Obama, FDR “had carte blanche to rectify the economy because he became president after the country became in full-blown depression.”

“Americans were willing to give FDR that luxury,” he added.

It’s true that the economy may not have been bad enough for Obama to have the opportunity to launch truly transformational reforms, but the president also deprived himself of that chance by not adopting bold initiatives after the passage of the stimulus.

No doubt, Obama gets credit for one major policy achievement: steps toward universal health coverage. But it’s not hard to imagine that FDR would be opposed to the terms of the debt deal Obama is negotiating. Moreover, he would be distressed to know that a Democrat was letting Republicans chip away at the centerpiece of his progressive agenda.

Ironically, with his embrace of budget cuts as part of a possible solution to the debt standoff, Obama may commit a mistake similar to one Roosevelt made. When FDR halted funding for some of his social programs in the late 1930s, the result was what some historians call the “Roosevelt Recession,” which stunted the nation’s recovery from the Great Depression. If Obama’s decision leads to another economic downturn, he will have adopted only the least admirable aspect of Roosevelt’s legacy.

“We hoped [Obama] would live up to his billing as the next FDR and initiate a new New Deal; but he didn’t,” wrote University of Wisconsin professor Harvey Kaye, who contributes to New Deal 2.0, a project of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.

Jean Edward Smith, a prolific biographer of American political luminaries, including FDR, said Obama lacks Roosevelt’s killer instinct. “FDR recognized that the presidency was an adversarial endeavor,” Smith said in an interview. “Obama and today’s Democrats suffer from a shortage of testosterone.”

The new liberal order, whatever it is, is not a revival of FDR’s politics. As we now know, Obama was no new New Deal.

outlook@washpost.com

Alexander Heffner, a Washington Post intern, has written for the Boston Globe, Newsday and RealClearPolitics.

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