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Obama should channel FDR and fight back

Even reform-minded Democrats act as if they're embarrassed by the thought that government should do anything. If so, why are they in Washington? Roosevelt, for his part, refused to shy away from the principle of government action.

December 03, 2010|Michael Hiltzik

Get mean, already.

That was the unsolicited advice I offered to President Obama last year. The administration was reeling under a relentlessly anti-intellectual right-wing assault on healthcare reform. The program finally got passed, but the Democrats looked hopelessly feckless in the attempt.

Today the Democratic agenda, like the party's weight in Congress, has dramatically shrunk. Hard-fought reforms on healthcare and consumer finance could be nullified by legislative meddling. Social Security, which keeps millions of older Americans out of the poorhouse, is under fresh assault.

Is the retreat underway? Last week, Democrats were on the verge of giving in to a GOP demand to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. But the latest horrific job numbers underscore the point that what's needed more than payoffs to the top echelon is more direct economic stimulus and assistance for the working class.

My advice to Obama now might be: "Give 'em hell, Barry." Except it's not Harry Truman whom Obama should look to for inspiration, but Franklin Roosevelt. No one was better than FDR at batting his opponents' pitches back down their throats, to cheers from the grandstands.

FDR's best-known retort to his critics on Wall Street, uttered in a 1936 campaign speech, was "I welcome their hatred." But in that speech he also drew a razor-sharp distinction between his administration and the previous dozen years of GOP rule, which ended with three years of depression.

"Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge!" Roosevelt said. "Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the bread lines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that government is best which is most indifferent."

Have you heard anything that colorful or direct from President Obama? Me neither. Did Roosevelt make a rowdy fight of it? You betcha.

It's true that the political landscape was much different then. Both parties had moderate, progressive and conservative blocs — in fact, FDR's toughest political adversaries were Southerners from his own party. Today we seem to have one party with aspirations to reform and another with aspirations to obstruction. Yet even reform-minded Democrats act as if they're embarrassed by the thought that government should do anything.

If so, why are they in Washington? Roosevelt, for his part, refused to shy away from the principle of government action. "I have never had sympathy with the point of view that a session of the Congress is an unfortunate intrusion of what they call 'politics' into our national affairs," he said in a 1937 Fireside Chat. "Democratic government can never be considered an intruder into the affairs of a democratic nation."

Roosevelt had other principles that seem to be overlooked by his successor today. He rarely let a political slur go unanswered. In 1936, Al Smith, the former Democratic presidential candidate, surfaced as a front man for the right-wing Liberty Lobby and labeled the New Deal as "socialist." (Sound familiar?) Roosevelt squelched him by unearthing a speech Smith had delivered during his 1928 presidential campaign.

"The cry of socialism," Smith had said then, "has been patented by the powerful interests that desire to put a damper on progressive legislation. Is that cry of socialism anything new?… I have heard it raised by reactionary elements and the Republican Party in my own state for over a quarter century."

Why don't today's Democrats play hardball like that? I suspect it's because deep down they fear their fellow Americans are idiots. When conservatives attack healthcare reform with a ridiculous claim about, say, healthcare "death panels," the Democrats assume most Americans will believe it on faith. And you can't argue with faith.

So this year they were afraid to base their reelection campaigns on the achievement of healthcare reform. Their campaign slogans should have been: No more chicanery by health insurers! No more rejections for preexisting conditions! No more rip-off deductibles and undisclosed co-pays!

They passed an economic stimulus program which, according to the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office, has increased employment by up to 3.6 million people, lowered the unemployment rate by as much as 2 percentage points and increased gross domestic product by up to 4.1%. Yet they failed to challenge their opponents' claims that the stimulus "failed."

They seemed to hope that voters would forget their accomplishments. That was stupid and spineless, and the harvest was a deserved trouncing at the polls.

Yes, I've heard the argument that conservatives and Republicans have their own cable TV megaphone in Fox News. That's no excuse. Democrats and progressives had their own megaphone: the White House and a commanding majority in Congress. They just didn't use it.

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