Two years ago it looked like we were on the verge of a new Age of Roosevelt. Today, however, with elections fast approaching, we talk not of FDR in the 1930s, but of Bill Clinton in 1994 and Jimmy Carter in 1980: the possibility, if not the likelihood, that the Democrats will lose one or both houses of Congress this November and, in 2012, the White House itself.
The lines are being written and rehearsed. ?Forget FDR. America is a center-right nation?Americans are essentially conservatives…Obama went too far, too fast, and asked too much of Americans.?
Bullshit. Obama didn?t ask too much of Americans. He asked too little of them.
In 2008 and 2009 magazines popular and political ran cover stories projecting Obama as possibly the Second Coming of FDR. Liberals had great expectations?and conservatives, grand fears?that big wins that November would lead to the launching of a ?new New Deal? to tackle America?s unfolding economic crisis, deepening inequality, and continuing industrial and infrastructural decay. It would be the making of a new politics that would propel progressive initiatives for years to come. Indeed, in the wake of eight years of Bush, many of us were looking forward to redeeming FDR?s vision of the Four Freedoms: ?Freedom of speech, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear.?
Nancy Pelosi herself had said that she had three words to offer in response to Republican assertions that the Democrats had run out of ideas: ?Franklin Delano Roosevelt.? And following Obama?s and the Democrats? victories in November 2008?and the Republicans? retreat into Dixie?pundits and pols imagined, at the least, that just as Roosevelt and the New Dealers had strengthened their hold on Congress in the 1934 midterm elections, so too would Obama and the Democrats buck history and gain seats in the midterm elections of 2010. However, all we hear now is ?Why Has He Fallen Short?? and ?The Sweep: How did it come to this??
Strangely enough, Obama himself, the man who wrote The Audacity of Hope, preached Hope and Change, and inspired so many of his fellow citizens to believe ?Yes we can,? seems shocked by the prevailing apathy and disinterest. He asks: Didn?t I act swiftly to stabilize the nation?s financial system? Didn?t I secure passage of a massive economic stimulus package to revive the economy and save millions of jobs that would otherwise have been lost? And didn?t I enact legislation that would guarantee health care to millions who were not previously covered? Where, he must wonder, is the love, admiration, and support that Roosevelt garnered?
Critics to the President?s left argue that Obama was too eager to cut deals with capitalists?with Wall Street and the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries?and too ready to compromise with Republicans. Other, more centrist folk, such as John Judis in the New Republic, Michael Tomasky in the New York Review of Books, and Jonathan Alter in The Promise, contend, respectively, that Obama failed to speak like a populist, failed to offer ?broad and convincing arguments,? and failed to clarify and sustain his message.
Liberal defenders of the President reply that FDR, too, cut deals and made compromises. They point out that in his famous First Hundred Days he deferred to big business and big landowners in the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), and that to win passage of Social Security he allowed reactionary Dixiecrats to exclude agricultural and domestic workers?mostly African Americans?from its provisions. Moreover, Obama?s guardians note that Roosevelt didn?t even create the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and enact the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA, or Wagner Act) and Social Security until 1935.
All true. But critics and defenders alike ignore the most crucial thing that Roosevelt did. From the very outset in 1933, he actively engaged American working people and young people in both the struggles and the labors of recovery, reconstruction, and reform. The NIRA and the AAA, respectively, enabled working men and women to organize AFL unions and Midwestern family farmers to create boards to shape the process of economic recovery in industry and agriculture, and also led the way to the Wagner Act (with its federal NLRB) and the formation from the bottom up of the CIO, as well as to a host of popular rural development initiatives, including rural electrification. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) recruited young men to plant trees, fight soil erosion, and build not only parks and recreation areas but also themselves, both physically and mentally, in the process. It pioneered the way to the establishment in 1935 of the National Youth Administration (NYA), which enabled millions of boys and girls and young men and women, white and black, to advance their educations and improve American public and economic life. And when jobs didn?t ?grow? as fast as they were needed, FDR and New-Dealer Harry Hopkins created temporary jobs through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Civil Works Administration (CWA), which paved the way to setting up the WPA in 1935.
Americans?working people and young people in all their diversity, the folks who voted for Obama in November 2008?were ready to act. You could see it at the inauguration in January 2009 and you could feel it in labor councils, community centers, and college classrooms across the country.
However, there was no call, no empowerment, no mobilization. Despite his promises on the campaign trail, Obama never pushed to enact the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would have challenged and better enabled labor to organize the millions who wanted organizing. For all of his professions, he never instituted major national service initiatives to afford programs, internships, and apprenticeships to young graduates to remake America and themselves. And for all of his preaching, he never rallied citizens to mobilize and fill the public squares and spaces?before the Tea Partiers did?to fight for a national health care system that would not just control prices and cover everyone, but also encourage further progressive campaigns to extend and deepen freedom, equality, and democracy.
Once sworn in, Obama failed to energize his fellow citizens and engage them in the process of renewal. Instead of harnessing the hopes and aspirations he had encouraged to help him win the presidency, he left them hanging. And two years later Americans feel let down and detached. We are not conservatives?other than in the sense that we want to conserve and build upon the good and the great that is America. We remain progressives at heart?but now, it seems, hopelessly so.