2010 vs. 1938—Obama and FDR

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Burton Folsom is professor of history at Hillsdale College in Michigan and author of New Deal or Raw Deal? (Simon & Schuster, 2008).

“I don’t believe that generations which so far haven’t a chance to vote or to get born should be paying off our headaches.”  Thus spoke Robert Doughton, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency.  Republicans had won 81 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate during the 1938 midterm elections; Doughton was expressing the view that too much spending and too much government were finally bringing problems for the Democratic Party.

For the next seventy-two years, the 1938 midterms were the only elections in the U.S. where the party in power lost more than 60 seats—until 2010.  What’s interesting is that the same issues of federal debt, government spending, and inflicting unsustainable burdens on children unborn would dominate the 2010 midterm elections as well.

Presidents Roosevelt and Obama have much in common.  In fact, Obama often seems to be copying the Roosevelt playbook.  And why not?  It won four straight presidential elections for Roosevelt, and Obama—although weakened—may yet be re-elected in 2012. 

More specifically, President Obama has followed FDR’s political strategy first to campaign as a moderate and, when elected, storm the economy with massive federal programs.  FDR did virtual takeovers of business (through the NRA), farming (through the AAA), and welfare (through the FERA and later the WPA).  Obama did bank bailouts (as did Bush), a restructuring at General Motors, and what appears to be a near takeover of health care.  Both presidents also did “stimulus” spending for targeted voting groups.

Under FDR, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation became a bailout mechanism that helped banks, railroads, and FDR’s son Elliott as well.  Politics becomes very personal very quickly and FDR used his government programs to increase his political advantage.

After he created the WPA, V. G. Coplen, the Democrat county chairman of Indiana, offered this opinion:  “What I think will help is to change the WPA management from top to bottom.  Put men in there who are … in favor of using these Democratic projects to make votes for the Democratic Party.”  One WPA director in New Jersey—a corrupt but candid man—answered his office phone, “Democratic headquarters!”

Politicians often went public with their efforts to translate federal spending into votes.  Frank Towey of New Jersey announced at a Democrat rally in Newark, “In this county there are 18,000 on WPA.  With an average of 3 in a family you have 54,000 potential Democratic votes.  Can anyone beat that if it is properly mobilized?”

Gavin Wright, an economic historian, did a state-by-state analysis of New Deal spending.  He noted that safe Democrat states, especially those in the South, received fewer WPA dollars than richer battleground states in the North and West.  Since southern states had more poverty than northern states, that meant that WPA jobs often went to the states that needed them the least.

During the first five years of the New Deal—before the 1938 midterm elections—Republicans seemed brain dead when responding to Democratic pork barrel politics.  Senator Daniel Hastings (R-Del) indignantly said, “All appreciate the difficulty Republican candidates generally are confronted with and the large sums of money being used, at least indirectly, by the New Deal for campaign purposes.”  But Hastings concluded “that this indirect bribery of the voters will be overcome.  I cannot believe the American people are willing to be sold that way.”

Senator Hastings was wrong.  The Democrats, even with double digit unemployment, won seats in Congress in the elections of 1934 and 1936.  “The Democratic majorities in Congress are accounted for by the government billions,” the Chicago Tribune concluded.  “One doesn’t shoot Santa Claus,” complained Norman Thomas, the head of the Socialist Party in America.

After 1936, the Republicans seemed headed for oblivion.  In a similar manner, in 2009, after President Obama’s election, Time magazine had a picture of an elephant on its cover with the caption, “Endangered Species.” 

What helped the Republicans was Democratic overreach.  Presidents Roosevelt in 1938 and Obama in 2010 made unpopular power grabs and federal interventions.  With FDR, he was so overconfident with his popularity that he moved to pack the Supreme Court with new justices appointed by him and eager to uphold New Deal programs (which the Court had been striking down during his first term).  When Congress balked at increasing FDR’s power that way, and when polls showed voters disagreed with the president, FDR would not give up.  He then moved to influence the selection of Senator Alben Barkley, who supported Court packing, as the new Senate majority leader.  FDR also moved to “purge” Democrats who opposed his policies, especially Court packing.

During the 1938 midterm elections, many Democrats were, as Vice-President John Nance Garner said, “mad clean through” at FDR and did little to support him in Congress.  Republicans attacked federal spending that was out of control—the national debt had almost doubled in five years.  On election day, FDR as we have seen, lost the 81 House seats, a number that has only been rivaled with the elections this year.

President Obama, also confident with his political mandate, moved to enact a near trillion dollar stimulus package, various bailouts and auto takeovers, and, finally, an unpopular health care bill.  Voters consistently said they thought any benefits in the federal spending was outweighed by the debts that we would pay, and then hand down to our grandchildren to pay further.  The result was a Republican triumph.

One point of cheer for the president is this:  When FDR lost, he worked with Congress, built up his Democratic base, and won re-election two years later.  Will voters this time want the spending faucets turned off indefinitely?

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