Alan Brinkley: Obama vs. Tea Party: Think FDR vs. Huey Long

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Alan Brinkley, a history professor at Columbia University, is the author of “Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin & the Great Depression.” His most recent book is "The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century."]

In the aftermath of the massive Democratic losses on Election Day, the tea party movements have proved that their efforts made a significant contribution to the Republican victories. Though only a few true tea party candidates were actually elected — most prominently Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida — there can be no doubt that the movement’s energy and anger were perhaps the crucial factor.

President Barack Obama worked hard in the last weeks of the campaign. But his message was — as it has been for many months — without much passion and without much impact. It is not surprising that Obama did little to mobilize the right. What is surprising is how little his campaigning mobilized his own constituency. This leaves Democrats with the question of how to go forward in the face not only of defeat but of discouragement.

It is in times like these that a leader is most needed, and Obama is the only option. What can he learn from the challenges — and successes — of his predecessors?

Seventy-six years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt found himself confronted with a tea party of his own. He was two years into his presidency and six years into the Great Depression. Unemployment was close to 20 percent, and the unprecedented efforts to provide relief to the jobless were far from enough to make a real difference. Roosevelt’s great experiment in economic reform — the ambitious National Recovery Administration — was floundering. He had significant achievements, to be sure. FDR had shored up a tottering banking system, passed important financial reform, stabilized the agricultural economy and launched a bold public works program. But he also faced challenges by a bewildering number of protest movements that seemed to threaten his presidency.

Huey Long, the former governor of Louisiana and, by 1934, a senator, was leading an improbable movement to redistribute wealth. “Share Our Wealth” attracted broad support across much of the country with Long’s promise to guarantee every family $5,000 in wealth and annual income of $2,000 to $2,500 a year — funded by confiscatory taxes on the rich....
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