THE BLOG
03/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Elections Do Matter: Lessons Learned From FDR's "100 Days"

As President Obama gets closer to passage of his economic stimulus program -- the Senate is likely to approve an $800+ billion version Monday -- there are important similarities to his approach and FDR's during the latter's famous first 100 days. And there are some lessons that congressional Republicans and national GOP leaders might learn too.

First and most obvious: Like 1932, the 2008 presidential and congressional elections represented a fundamental shift from a conservative Republican president to a liberal Democratic one.

In recent days, prominent conservative talk-show hosts and Republican congressional leaders expressed resentment when Mr. Obama stated that he had won the election. But it is a fact not only won but by a substantial margin -- by 9.5 million votes, or by 53 percent to 46 percent. He wasn't bragging; he was simply reminding Republicans that he won a true political mandate and believed he had an obligation to fulfill his campaign promises.

Second, a little known fact: Like Mr. Obama, Franklin Delano Roosevelt needed Republican support in the U.S. Senate to enact his 100 Days program and beyond. While the Democrats won a huge victory in 1932 (retaking the Senate with a 12-seat pick-up, giving them a 60-36 majority), they still needed at least four Republican votes to shut off any filibuster because back then cloture required two-thirds of the 96 senators. The change to the 60 percent rule occurred in 1975.

Third, FDR wasn't bashful about using populist rhetoric concerning whom he blamed for the economic crisis: "Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion. Rejected by the hearts and minds of men  The money changers have fled from the high seats in the temple of our civilization." Mr. Obama has similarly not avoided using words like "greed" and "irresponsibility" in describing the craze of derivative speculations and grossly excessive bonuses that anger so many Americans.

Fourth, FDR, like Mr. Obama, saw the need in his famous first 100 days to win enactment of both short term immediate relief and job-creating projects for the unemployed and the poor and longer term social programs and fundamental reforms. It wasn't either-or, or one first and the other second; both were needed at once, just as Mr. Obama has argued in his own stimulus program.

FDR included "shovel ready" infrastructure public works programs, such as the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and state and local government building projects as well as longer-term structural reforms in the financial and banking sectors, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Mr. Obama makes the same argument -- especially that longer-term investments in "human infrastructure," such as education and health care, must also be included in this package.

Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky recently explained his opposition to Senator Obama's proposal by declaring that FDR's New Deal was a failure, with unemployment still at 15 percent in 1940, before World War II. Senator McConnel failed to mention that the 1940 rate represented a 10% drop from the start of the New Deal. And of course huge increases in public spending because of World War II was the final solution to the Great Depression. So how does government spending to win World War II prove that government spending doesn't help stimulate the economy? I don't get it.

In any event, if Republican leadership thinks the way to win back a majority of the American people is to defend Herbert Hoover and criticize FDR's New Deal, then "rots of ruck." With such a strategy, Democratic liberal rule in Washington could be around for a long time.

It is somewhat ironic (hypocritical?) of course, that the same so-called conservative Republicans opposing Mr. Obama's stimulus legislation supported Mr. Bush's $750 billion bailout package in the fall of 2008 - a package that virtually socialized the banking and investment banking communities, as well as additional money printed or borrowed to nationalize AIG and other businesses, adding over one trillion dollars to the federal deficit.

And yet they criticize Mr. Obama's bill for spending too much. Huh?

But Mr. Obama should not give up on his other campaign promise -- to try for bipartisan solutions, even if that means compromising some core liberal principles.

In the House-Senate conference, it would be a welcome result if the Democrats could accept some of the ideas from such thoughtful and constructive conservative Republicans as Sens. George Voinovich of Ohio, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona, and Richard Shelby of Alabama, especially to strip the package of all minor special-interest projects or "pork," no matter how minuscule and add more small business, job-incentivizing tax cuts.

But in the final analysis, the people have spoken, at least for now: The era of laissez-faire, anti-social-spending government is over. The era of progressive government -- where government is a friend, not an enemy, and its priorities are the middle class and the poor, not the wealthy -- has arrived.

It's time for the American people's mandate in 2008 to be reflected by our congressional representatives in Washington. It is time even for sincere conservative Republicans to compromise some of their ideas in order to let Mr. Obama fulfill his campaign promises and see whether they work.

That would be change that that American people would welcome -- and put the Republican Party in a much better position to be an effective loyal opposition in the months and years to come.

Lanny Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton, served as a member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from 2006 to 2007. He is the author of Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America. This article appeared in The Washington Times on Monday, February 9, 2009.