Criticism of Obama Mirrors That of FDR

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Elizabeth Tandy Shermer is Visiting Professor of History at Claremont McKenna College.

It has been little more than a year since Barack Obama took office.  In the last months of his campaign, in the wait for his swearing in, and throughout his presidency, there has been the constant comparison and reference to the Great Depression, the New Deal, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  We have seen it from those on the Left who see a New Popular Front coalescing against what they deem fascist tea baggers.  We have seen it from liberal economists, such as Paul Krugman, who have warned us about the dangers of another Great Depression and the fallacy of not enough government spending.  And, of course, there are constant comparisons between the charisma, personal connection, and hope that both FDR and Obama instilled in their supporters.

On the surface, there seems to be fundamental differences between concerns about the threat these men, their Administrations, and their policies have and did pose to the Constitution and the body politic.  Yet, in truth, there are important similarities that tell us more about the nature of US politics than perhaps either man’s politics or policies.  Obama has been bothered, perhaps not plagued, by the birther movement, which has claimed that he was not born in this country and therefore is unable to serve as president.  He also has endured charges of socialism, communism, even fascism for his health care proposal, the arguments generally being that this expansion of federal power is un-Constitutional and un-American.

Most would assume that FDR did not face these criticisms.  True, a spectrum of wealthy capitalists deemed him a traitor to his class, but they never questioned that he could govern under the rules of the Constitution.  Still, this question of who was an American and who had the right to enjoy the real, tangible benefits of citizenship was woven throughout the New Deal.  If the New Deal did one thing, it brought Americans who had been relatively powerless to new positions, including those who could now sit across the bargaining table from their managers confidently because of new federal guarantees to a right to organize a union of their choosing.  These unionists were very much a part of the New Deal. Indeed, we could call them the shocktroops of liberal reform.  There were also those young New Dealers who came to Washington to serve in New Deal agencies.  This generation of young men, a few women, had been left out of the halls of power, despite their education and hard work in their communities, because of their faith or their Eastern or Southern European surnames.  These New Dealers found new positions of power local branches of federal agencies and in Washington.

Yet, these young, enthusiastic reformers and labor organizers were seen as an affront to American traditions and values.  Take, for example, the Southern planter class’s reaction to union organizers who went to organize poor whites and blacks in Southern factories.  With the full weight of the Administration, the famous CIO claim that Roosevelt wants you to join a union, their attempts to organize mill workers and other industrial workers were an attack on the staid Jim Crow South.  In one handbill, Southern Bourbons issued warnings that sound eerily similar to contemporary concerns about the current generation of Democrats, and Obama himself, who want to offer not just hope but change:  “Who are the men who run this union anyway?...  Baldenzi, Rieve, Cheepka, Genis, Jabor, Knapik, and Rosenburg.  Where do you think these men come from and where do they live?  Are their background [sic], upbringing, viewpoints, beliefs and principles anything like yours and mine?"

But there is an equally salient point of comparison between the critics of the Obama and FDR Administrations in regard to federal power.  Historians have come to identify a so-called “New Deal Constitution,” which today seems in exile, because much of the expansion of the power of the federal state has been curtailed.  More and more power has actually returned to the states, especially under Richard Nixon’s New Federalism, which was built on block grants, not liberal directives on how to spend federal monies for housing and urban development.  Still, FDR and the New Dealers had to fight to transform American federalism to enable the national government to make new guarantees for union security, set maximum hours and a minimum wage, and, of course, provide social security, a guaranteed federal pension.

Yet, all we remember of this fight is the failed Supreme Court packing plan of 1937.  Frustrated, so the story goes, with a recalcitrant Supreme Court that struck down much of the New Deal legislation, FDR offered a scheme to stack, or pack, the Court in his favor.  When he outlined this plan, he lamented that the Court only looked a small percentage of cases.  To help clear the docket, the president wanted to appoint one justice, up to six, for every justice over the age of 70.  He would first give them the chance to retire, which also allowed him the opportunity to appoint a replacement.  He argued that this proposal was not unconstitutional for the number of justices had fluctuated over time.  All true, it had fluctuated between 5 and 10 at various moments.  But it was immediately denounced, even by liberals, who had supported the president, as an unconstitutional power grab.  Among this outcry were claims from his conservative critics that he was becoming a dictator.  One columnist from the Washington Star even claimed that FDR was no better than Hitler and warned of a New Deal path to American fascism.

Yet, these critics were always there.  From the first 100 days, businessmen decried the expansion of federal power and an emboldened and empowered labor movement in corporate boardrooms, political organizations such as the American Liberty League, and across the South where white planters refused to abide by federal regulations to redistribute crop payments.  FDR had simply handed them a way to attack his Administration, and by extension New Deal federalism, publicly at a moment when many critics thought such denunciations would be political suicide.

So how then to think about Obama, his first year in office, and his critics?  The comparison between the attacks the Roosevelt Administration endured and also the criticisms conservative Republican presidents have faced, most recently the cries of dictatorship and un-Constitutional powers that Dick Cheney earned as vice president, show how useful the Constitution is and has been as a political weapon.  It is clear with the persistence of race-baiting and warnings of un-Americanism that there are still fierce disagreements as to who is an American and what is in fact un-American or un-Constitutional.  Americans have a real tie to this founding document and these question of unconstitutionalism and un-Americanism need to be seen both in the time and political circumstance in which they take place but also with a real understanding about how malleable and powerful are definitions of what the Constitution says, allows, and denies.

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