Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Hundred Days

The combination of Hoover, FDR and Obama as a focus of analysis appears to be catching on. I just read Thomas Ferguson's post The Story Behind Obama's Remarks on FDR on New Deal 2.0. He starts with a quote from a transcript of remarks Obama gave to "liberal bloggers":
“We didn’t actually, I think, do what Franklin Delano Roosevelt did, which was basically wait for six months until the thing had gotten so bad that it became an easier sell politically because we thought that was irresponsible. We had to act quickly.” - President Obama
There are two things that jump out at me from this quote, regardless of the context.The first is the self-exculpation - we didn't get all we wanted because we took a bolder path than FDR, so don't criticize us! - and the breathtaking erasure of history.

Um, hello? The First Hundred Days of FDR? The stuff of Democratic legend and the bane of Republicans to this day? FDR moved on the FIRST day of his presidency and did not stop for 100 days, passing legislation that would become the most stunning reimagining of American society since Lincoln and possibly since the founding of the nation.
Both of these actions are part and parcel of the movement style campaign politics Obama favors and which is so beloved of the righteous Stevensonians. It is narcissistic and a-historical  (We are the one's we have been waiting for), refuses to acknowledge politics as they are, and antithetical to mundane, interest-based transactional  governance. It doesn't want responsibility, only obedience and adulation, and so refuses to take it when things go belly up.

I mean, Precious, do you really want to claim that somehow you took on the big fight while FDR was kicking back and drinking martinis, waiting for the bottom to drop out? Really? Well, OK, I'll grant you that FDR probably was downing martinis, a rebellious act in the era of Prohibition, but to claim that the actions of this past president in the first six months of his administration were merely a cynical plot to weaken the country until it could no longer resist the siren call of social engineering boggles the imagination. And smacks a great deal of projection, something the Stevensonian tribe are masters at. It explains nothing and is obviously an attempt to excuse the failings of his own administration to accomplish anything material in more than 20 months.

But even more than being a lame excuse is the misrepresentation of both his own administration's actions and  FDR's. The frightening thought to me is that Obama is not being cynical when speaking about his own administrations actions, and that his profoundly incorrect understanding of the Democratic Party's history is ignorance, not deliberate revisionism. I don't get the sense that he is trying to misrepresent history as much as he simply doesn't know any version of it save the conventional wisdom ("which is to say sanctified hearsay and cliche") chattered by the Very Serious People. Lacking political foundations or commitments, Obama has nothing upon which to moor his governance, and this allows him to very sincerely insist that his economic team moved quickly (and they did, for their own interest group) when Roosevelt's did not. It is on par with his incomplete understanding of Reagan, seeing only the Gipper and Saint Ronnie the Beloved while failing to grasp the the ferocity of Regan's fight against FDR's legacy or the ruthless efficacy with which Reagan pushed through extreme, radical policies regardless of his actual support.

Ferguson posits some connections I'm not sure are entirely warranted, but his overall argument is sound. You don't need to put Robert Rubin in bed with Amity Shlaes to see the corruption their respective philosophies have engendered. The central explicit goal of the Movement Conservatives is to roll back the New Deal, and they spend enormous amounts of money to ensure "scholarship" that undermines, distorts and erases the legacy of FDR. This has captured mind share among the Very Serious People and has become part of Conventional Wisdom. That term, by the way (since we're salvaging history) was given its modern definition by John Kenneth Galbraith in The Affluent Society:
It will be convenient to have a name for the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability, and it should be a term that emphasizes this predictability. I shall refer to these ideas henceforth as the conventional wisdom. 
Ferguson says of Obama regurgitating this myth about FDR's dereliction of presidential duty:
Whether our highly intellectual president picked up the idea by reading it or hearing somebody else say it, it was, and is, in the air. And you can be sure that his words will now be rattling around for years to come and likely cited as proof of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s "irresponsibility."
He goes on to cite historical evidence that the outgoing Hoover administration, completely in thrall to conventional wisdom about  financial policy, tried to influence or bully FDR into continuing Hoover's failed policies, such as maintaining the gold standard, demanding economic austerity, and refusing to rethink the foundations of the social contract.

We haven't returned to the gold standard (yet), but the other demands sound all too similar to what the current administration is advocating for all of us little people.

In this way Obama ends up being a recapitulation of Hoover - unimaginative, a willing hostage to hip conventionality, uncomfortable with fundamental changes to the status quo, preferring to let the situation right itself than to chart a new, daring course. I fully agree with him that his administration did not do anything that Franklin Delano Roosevelt did:
Between March 8th and June 16th 1933 fifteen legislative proposals were passed into law. Never before had Executive and Legislative branches, co-operated to make such a profound impact on the country in such a short period of time. Private interests were subordinated to public policy, and the federal government took on the mission of doing what no other interest could do on its own. The role of government was transformed.


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