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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Mike R Bav - 11/8/2010

Actually, the health care law states that ALL American families will be required to purchase health insurance. If they do not, then they will have to pay an additional tax.

How is that "optional"?

The words "Democrat" and "Republican" have meant different things throughout history, but most historians assert that FDR was the first "modern" liberal Democrat. Barack Obama - whom you seem to love so much - praised the Democratic Party as the party of FDR (among others).

You went off on Mr. Fulsom for making the same association. Why?

I am neither a diehard Democrat nor a diehard Republican because I find it impossible to agree with all the positions of either party. Therefore, I think that "liberal" and "conservative" are far more accurate descriptors than any party or partisan affiliation.
Having said that, Obama's liberalism can certainly be compared to FDR's - and many, including the NYT, have done so.

See "Franklin Delano Obama" here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/10/opinion/10krugman.html.

Comparing FDR to HBO is NOT comparing apples to oranges. Comparing presidents to see what one can learn from another, or how one continued the actions of another, is what historians do. And should do. Period.

Maarja Krusten - 11/8/2010

Before any newer readers get upset at my saying GOP voters haven’t manned up about the Reagan period, I’ll note that I voted for Reagan, twice. (Yes, I know, older readers might have trouble coping with the fact that </gasp> I’ve dared to mention that more than once here on HNN. Maybe the conservative HNN reader who told me earlier this fall that I only was worthy curating urinating cats in his apartment after I mentioned something about my past working for the National Archives will show up and attack me again. Meh)

That I voted for Reagan doesn’t mean I can’t see the damage that the pie in the sky, “you can spend AND get all the goodies you want” approach did. Not just to our economy but the subsequent magical thinking of many voters. That cost free approach is what we really have been paying the price for in recent years. Perhaps it was a secular form of the Prosperity Gospel. To say nothing about the difficulty of now rooting out who among the voters is acting on principle and who is cynically hypocritical. Or can’t cope with anyone other than the one party holding the White House.

I wouldn’t be a voice crying in the wilderness here if that were the only problem – humans by nature are weak and out for themselves. (Who puts country first, really? And when’s the last time you saw nobility or civic courage on display in the U.S. for all of us to see? I’d say 1956-1965, civil rights era.) But it’s the fact that too many segments of the population have bought into a mendocracy (so much for admonitions against false witness) that makes me keep calling for better conservatism. http://bit.ly/bvPYhB And makes me worry why so many private sector advocates of conservative policies skirt the issue of the damage lying does? Why have they lost confidence in the principles of conservatism? Don’t they understand that the FNC/Limbaugh approach screams, shell game, we got nuthin’ when they could be signaling confidence in conservative principles, instead?

But it’s not the poor tactics, it’s the casual acceptance of lying that is most corrosive to our national fabric. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Mark *:36 Many voters seem to sight of that one, too. Or maybe some have decided the trade off is worth it for more personal earthly riches. No need to be a good steward of the earth, Fox and Limbaugh have give their audience absolution on that one too.

Did I really spend my lunch break arguing against moral corrosion? Yep, I did.

Maarja Krusten - 11/8/2010

An additional question for Mr. Folsom: I'm curious, do you watch Fox News or have you ever done so? Do you think it encourages personal responsibility? It didn't when I watched it. I used to watch some of its news and opinion shows until mid-way through the Bush administration. I finally stopped it because I just couldn't take the lack of confidence in the GOP that the blame shifting, finger pointing, accountability dodging of some of its opinion side relied on. Rarely could Hannity or O'Reilly bring themselves to agree with a non-conservative who didn't march in lockstep with the Bush administration although O'Reilly sometimes showed some capacity for independent thinking.

For me, Fox's opinion side showed too much reflexive defense of one party and not enough thoughtful examination of governance. (Since then, FNC has added Beck and Palin to Hannity and O'Reilly.) I also found myself rolling my eyes over what seemed to me overly scared looking anchors feeding viewers hyped up stories. Fear just doesn't appeal to me as a motivator. As a woman, I especially disliked seeing the "OMG here's your daily quota of what to fear" dished out by Fox's female anchors. (Don't know how men react to that, not being one.) I did like Shep Smith as appearing to be fair and reasonable in his newscaster persona, hwoever.

I see video clips of some of the Obama era Fox sometimes and just shake my head. Do you follow it? There obviously are a number of reasons for why the U.S. is in the shape economically that it is now. Plenty of personal, policy, and structural blame to spread around, of course. Does anyone ever discuss the responsibility for where we are now of GOP voters who passively supported Reagan's and Bush's running up of the deficit? I haven't seen such admissions in the FNC clips I've clicked on online. Did I miss something?

Maarja Krusten - 11/8/2010

You write of voters that they "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." As you know, the GOP has a number of components, some focused on social issues, some on fiscal, some on foreign policy and defense issues, and some on all three. What are the people you actually know in real life saying? The GOP voters in the circle of people I know personally focused on issues other than the debt in voting, so I need your help in explaining the thinking that underlies what you wrote.

Why did the debt become an issue in 2010 under a president smeared as a socialist and America hater, when many of those same people seemed to ignore it during the Reagan and Bush II years? The friends and family with whom I've discussed fiscal issues aren't fans of Fox News (they don't follow it) so they aren't privy to the comfort food absolution for personal and political choices that its pundits dispense. They know too many voters cheerily and selfishly said, "pull out the plastic, gimme the credit card wars - woo, hoow, go get 'em, Team America, and all my benefits, Cheney's right, deficits don't matter!" And on the personal front, spent, spent, spent rather than saved, saved, saved, to keep our consumption driven economy going. Why the selectivity? Why didn't GOP voters man up during the Reagan and Bush years and say, you shouldn't spend so much, even though getting it makes me feel SO good, and not ask me to contribute more? Or conversely, "I wanna clutch my wallet tight so don't tax me but that means you can't keep spending either?"

Maarja Krusten - 11/8/2010

Oh, Mr. Hughes, why would you say that? Since I see so much of that type of nonsense on message boards, and you're capable of reasonable conversation let me ask you something. Why do you have so little confidence in the GOP and conservatism that you would post a canard like that? Where's the substance? Are you trying to tell us the Limbaugh and Fox News right is reduced to smoke and mirrors, to dodges, which is what smears signal to me? The handful of conservatives I know in my circle shake their head over the smears of Obama and worry about the disappearance of the grown ups on the right. Where have they gone?

What is the underlying reason for the avoidance of realistic talk about tough issues and the substitution of snark that screams hollow, that characterizes so many comments by those on the right on messages boards? This isn't the confident, patriotic right that didn't fear its countryment that I remember from Reagan's day. Why have its representatives become so little?

What has hollowed conservativism out, even neutered it in some instances? Where did the damage come from? I know the opinion side of Fox News fear factory cynically targets the most frightened (doing terrible damage by sissifying instead of fortifying people who might have been nudged by better opinion leaders to instead being brave). But what else is in the mix? By in to the chimera of the Prosperity Gospel? An unrealistic embrace of the Just World theory? The insistance on hearing "you are a good person. it is not your fault," that Ta-Nehisi Coates captured so well in his recent blog post at The Atlantic? Where have the men and women of substance gone, who once might have engaged in serious public discourse over what the party they vote should do? Even conservative blogging academics seem to struggle. Where are the good models, the people who haven't lost confidence in conservatism?

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/7/2010

"Presidents Roosevelt and Obama have much in common."

After this statement I thought you would go on to note that both men and their wives had an affinity for communists.

Johnathan Shane Anderson - 11/5/2010

You must remember that the Democratic and Republican parties were very different from their counterparts today. Comparing FDR's democratic party to Obama's is like comparing apples to oranges. Additionally, it is your only your opinion, not fact, that the current healthcare bill is a "government takeover". The government option is a choice not a mandate. Please keep your opinions out of the clasification of History.

Jonathan Pine - 11/4/2010

“Obama often seems to be copying the Roosevelt playbook.”

Immediately after President Obama’s election, after having promised “change” during the election campaign, which he never really defined how he was going to go about, he hired many of the same people of the oligarchical establishment who had helped to create and benefit from the economic and national security messes Obama inherited. From there it’s been a continuation of the Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush business-as-usual: (1) continue the redistributive economic policies to favor the people who caused the meltdown, albeit softened by a highly visible albeit insufficient stimulus policy and (2) continue shoveling money into the Military - Industrial – Congressional complex. It’s hardly the same situation when FDR was around. FDR was a fighter. Obama is a weak concessionary careerist president who continues to spout bipartisan drivel even after getting a beating from the mid-terms.