Friday, August 19, 2011

What Would FDR Do?

"What would FDR do?"

It was a question former Clintonian Robert Reich asked on Twitter last week regarding to the Supreme Court's looking primed to shoot down "Obamacare." It was yet another unfavorable comparison to former Democratic presidents Obama's received pretty much since the Tea Party emerged in the summer of '09. Why can't Obama be more like FDR? LBJ? Carter? Clinton?

I often answer, especially with the last two, with a "Thank God, he ain't." Here we have a president who's accomplished a bunch of historic shit, who, as Rachel Maddow pointed out a few weeks ago, has come through on 85% of his campaign promises, and, with stiff opposition put universal health care on the books (Yes, I know it's neither perfect nor what everybody clamored for, but, to paraphrase LBJ, "I know it's messed up, but put it on the books. We'll fix it later." That's pretty much how our system works. They put something in place and modify it as time goes by. The Medicare and Social Security that you so prize today ain't what they were when first enacted.). Yet, I constantly hear how Obama's done absolutely nothing, how he's weak (in the face of the Tea Party who goes armed to public meetings talking about revolution and 300 death threats a month), and why can't he be more like the aforementioned presidents.

I blame a lot of it on the economy, of course. Unemployment's high. Insecurity's even higher. Everything else pales in comparison. I can blame the media, the Right Wing propaganda machine, Liberals penchant to whine about everything and their superhuman wobbly-kneed ability to make even their historic successes look like monumental failures. Nostalgia, romanticism. I can blame a whole host of things. But I mainly blame history.

We Americans are not taught history but the Cliff's Notes of history. We are also taught to revere our leaders. So, unlike the works of a Howard Zinn or Vincent Harding, we're given a top-down view of our nation's history. By reading some of our history books, you'd assume that the Civil Rights Movement was fought by King all by his lonesome, Cesar Chavez organized himself as the migrant workers' movement, and Daniel Boone holed up in the Alamo to single-handedly take on Santa Ana.

The same is true of our presidents. We are given a list of their accomplishments, the laws they enacted, the bills that were passed under their watch, the wars they fought as though they alone did these great things. When we look at their historic legislation (and, indeed, a lot of it was historic), we never see the political wrangling it took to pass it, the resistance they faced, the oftentimes ugly compromises they made to get it passed, and how long it took to get it passed (in reality, the fact that HCR was passed at all was amazing, the fact that it only took a year is damned near miraculous). 

With this top-down approach to history, we also fail to see the bottom-up pressure many of these presidents actually faced during their tenure. Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive agenda was built on the back of workers staring down Gatling guns (and oftentimes getting shot) to demand their rights. FDR faced (often bloody) labor unrest his entire Presidency. Johnson's Great Society was enacted in the face of the Civil Rights movement and the fact that every summer from 1965 on major American cities burned.

Ignorant of these facts, we are more than willing to lionize the presidents of our past. While many of them definitely do deserve our praise and America's the better for their service, however we do them, the American process, and any current office holder a serious discredit to not take into account how our system actually works as opposed to how we want it to. So, to discredit the past, I thought I would answer (with what little of American history I do know) Reich's question (I actually did tweet my answer but either Reich was too busy to answer or didn't appreciate my answer).

What Would FDR Do?

* Sit on Glass-Steagall for 3 years because he didn't really want to regulate the banks

* Enact Glass-Steagall after a high-profile banker trial and further banking collapses

* Place the Japanese in internment camps as possible traitors to the nation while there actually were German-American and Italian-American spies roaming the countryside

* Enact the G.I. Bill by compromising with Southern Democrats to exclude blacks from receiving veteran benefits

* Enact Social Security by compromising with Southern Democrats to exclude blacks from receiving retirement benefits

(NOTE: Blacks were allowed to receive G.I. Bill benefits after the Korean War, though they missed out on the largest transfer of wealth in American history and the building of the American middle class; It was not until the 1960s that blacks were allowed to receive Social Security benefits.)

What Would LBJ Do?

* Enact the Voting Rights Act of 1965 two days after the Watts Riots concluded

* Manufacture a war with the Gulf of Tonkin incident, causing some half-million American casualties and killing anywhere from 2 to 10 million Vietnamese (I've heard both numbers quoted as Gospel--I'm guessing it was somewhere in the middle)

* Take seven years to get Medicare through a Democratic-held Congress

What Would Carter Do?

* Whatever he'd do, he'd fuck it up and blame it on malaise

What Would Clinton Do?

* Promise universal health care and then put his wife (neither a health expert nor an elected official) in charge of the entire process

* Give up his promise of universal health care in light of bad polling data and Harry and Louise

* Promise the end of discrimination against gays in the military only to enact Don't Ask/Don't Tell, which, of course, continued discrimination against gays in the military

* Declare "the era of Big Government is over" by cutting thousands of government jobs

* Ride the tech, housing, and credit bubbles to declare that he brought prosperity back to America

* Refuse to regulate over-the-counter derivatives despite being warned.

* Still refuse to regulate over-the-counter derivatives after a large investment firm collapsed due to them to the tune of a $100-million bailout

* Take credit for "ending welfare as we know it" by kicking hundreds of thousands of poor people off the welfare rolls whether they had jobs or not

* Get his dick wet

Well, I'm fairly damned certain that Robert Reich won't see this, but I hope I have effectively answered his question here. One hundred forty characters is just too damned limiting.

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