President Obama never encouraged the media concocted, ad man's fantasy land, comparison of him to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He didn't discourage the comparison either. He was flattered by it. But with the Massachusetts vote debacle smacking him in the face, his only hope for rebound is to really act like FDR.
FDR knew he was in a political life and death, take no prisoners war with his political enemies-- the GOP, ultra conservative Democrats, Wall Street, the big bankers and big manufacturers. He repeatedly lambasted them as obstructionists and economic royalists. Obama is in the same war. They make absolutely no effort to mask their loath of his policies and presidency, and have made it clear they will stop at nothing to bounce him from office. This was before Scott Brown's win. They'll be even more bellicose, intransigent and war like against him and his agenda now.
FDR didn't just hit back, and hit back hard, against the economic royalists. He did not make weak appeals and empty threats to banks and Wall Street to be responsible, do the right thing, and ramp up lending to businesses, farm and homeowners, and pump money into job creation efforts. He imposed tough regulations on them. One of the toughest was the Glass Steagall Act. The congressional gut of Glass-Steagall unleashed the orgy of Wall Street freeboot speculation, trading, swaps, and scams of investors, borrowers and the government that nearly wrecked the economy.
FDR's bank and Wall Street rein in sent the blunt message that he meant business on financial reform and that this was a key to job creation, saving homes, and getting businesses up and going. FDR spent, and spent, and spent some more on jobs, housing, and social service, public works in the right way. FDR did not resort to smoke and mirror photo-op, PR, showpiece White House jobs summits, conferences, and imploring business councils to expand and create jobs. He put the money directly in the hands of the needy through the litany of alphabet recovery programs.
Obama has belatedly acknowledged that Glass-Steagall must be reinstated. That's only a start. Obama should do what FDR did and plough stimulus dollars directly into government run job training programs, job banks, and public works projects.
FDR's economic brain trust were tough, reform minded academics and public officials, not Wall Street, and corporate shills. Obama should put the same team around him. That means asking for the immediate resignation of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. His bumbles, manipulation and outright lies as New York Federal Reserve Chairman and as treasury secretary to cover up the malfeasance of AIG, Goldman, Sachs and other Wall Street wheeler dealers have done more to taint Obama as a hopeless captive of Wall Street. Giving Geithner the boot would reinforce a tough message that Wall Street and the banks must toe the administration line on reform.
FDR would quickly pull the plug if something didn't work or worked badly to advance his agenda. The health care reform bill is that something. Obama should yank it off the Senate table. His mistake was not to battle for health care reform, but to battle for it at the wrong time and on the wrong terms. It was a fight that was preordained to be long, contentious, embittered, and ultimately shamelessly compromised; a fight that let a GOP, flat on its back, off the canvas. He should revisit the issue later and this time write the bill himself with a fully functioning public option, firm cost containment measures, and tough monitoring provisions. Then quietly and patiently sell congressional leaders and the public on it.
FDR made sure that when he went to war it was truly the right war in the right place at the right time. He had America's allies and the American people firmly behind him. Afghanistan and certainly Iraq are not the right wars, and only for a brief moment did they have the full cooperation of America's allies, and the American public firmly behind them. Obama should set and stick to a firm date for withdrawal, call a regional conference of allies to inform them of the exit plan, and then demand that they make regional security, containment, and peace as much their responsibility as the US's. He should then announce that the billions saved from disengagement will go directly into a massive program of jobs, education, housing expansion and infrastructure rebuilding--in America.
FDR did not substitute rock star photo op, stagey, high profile media posturing for tough leadership. When the GOP and the press wrote the epitaph for him midway through his second term in 1938 and a decade later wrote the same epitaph for Truman both came out swinging. FDR took to the airwaves and blasted the economic royalists. Truman tooled through the nation with his famed whistle stop train campaign and hammered the do nothing GOP congress.
FDR and Truman fired up their base, inspired millions of Americans, continued to push reform, and kept the presidency. Obama could do the same. But only if he really acts like FDR.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.
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