President Obama can't escape comparisons to FDR. On his 100th day in office, politicos everywhere measured him against the FDR yardstick. Last week, Paul Krugman commented that "I was kind of hoping Obama might be FDR, but maybe not."
Whether or not Krugman is right, the president should learn the most fundamental FDR lesson of all: call it something.
We remember FDR so favorably because of the New Deal, which effectively rewrote the American social contract: it gave the gift of Social Security. Many of the great 20th century presidents likewise grouped their legislative initiatives into a larger effort whose name reflected their purpose and ideals. JFK had his "New Frontier" and LBJ his "Great Society," which created Medicare and Medicaid.
No surprise that in his health care speech to Congress, President Obama aligned health care reform with these legacies:
"This has always been the history of our progress. In 1935, when over half of our seniors could not support themselves and millions had seen their savings wiped away, there were those who argued that Social Security would lead to socialism, but the men and women of Congress stood fast, and we are all the better for it. In 1965, when some argued that Medicare represented a government takeover of health care, members of Congress -- Democrats and Republicans -- did not back down. They joined together so that all of us could enter our golden years with some basic peace of mind."
If we've really survived the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression thanks to government intervention, and if health care reform is so integral to fulfilling the American promise, where is President Obama's "New Deal"? We've had the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the reauthorization of SCHIP, the Public-Private Investment Program, the government takeover of too-big-to-fail companies (Bear Stearns and AIG to GM and hundreds of banks), and now the messy attempt at health care reform. Without a doubt, all this legislation is significant enough to merit comparison to the New Deal and the Great Society.
But to many voters, this series of legislation must seem uncoordinated, discombobulated, a patchwork attempt to stitch the economy back together. And the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act" simply isn't sexy.
Perhaps the president considered doing this and decided against it. Fair enough: it might offer his critics something to coalesce around, when everything else they've tried seems to have failed.
But I think the benefits would outweigh this risk. It's important to demonstrate that these pieces of legislation -- including health care reform -- are all part of a coordinated effort to revive the American economy, and to bring it into the 21st century. It's important to convey that these laws are meant to transcend this moment and this crisis, to lay a new foundation for economic security and affordable health care that can endure for decades.
I propose the "New Era of Responsibility," taken from President Obama's Inaugural Address. Or the "Great Promise," for the double meaning of promise--a renewed hope, and a new commitment to decent health care for all. Whatever the phrase, it must invoke a national spirit of community and the optimism that our best days are still ahead, that we can still continue on the path toward a more perfect union, provided we keep our eyes fixed on the horizon.