In Part 1 of this article, I discussed FDR's economic legacy and how the challenges America faces today mirrors the challenges he faced during the 1930s. As President, FDR faced fierce opposition from the Republican party for the many economic relief programs that he implemented - but which ultimately lifted America from the Great Depression. Today, our economy is struggling, unemployment is high, and banks continue to take unconscionable risks while average Americans suffer; and yet the Republicans continue to reject sensible measures to fix our problems.
As they say, it's déjà vu all over again.
The important thing to understand is that Republicans today, as in FDR's time, are not interested in economic recovery for the nation but in wealth creation for themselves and their campaign donors. As his own statements confirm time and again, Mitt Romney couldn't care less about middle class or poor Americans and is concerned only with the welfare of the rich. He is also a blind believer in the power of raw capitalism to solve all problems. That was precisely the stance of Herbert Hoover, FDR's predecessor, 80 years ago. Hoover advocated doing nothing in the face of the Great Depression, maintaining that the free market would eventually right itself and needed no help from government. This was a very simple philosophy but also one that would have led to civil war had FDR not emerged to challenge Hoover's lazy approach. But behind that laziness was also a calculation: it was not just Hoover who wanted the government to remain passive, but the opportunistic Robber Barons, who saw profit in chaos and were funding the Republican Party machine. Much like Romney's backers today.
This is where President Obama comes in. The Republicans despise FDR because he proved that government could actually improve the economy and society through active intervention, something that runs counter to conservative philosophy and, more importantly, to the interests of corporations and the wealthy. And that is also precisely why they hate Obama - because he has the potential to do the same.
I say "potential" because he has not really done it yet. Sure, the President has taken plenty of political risk by fighting for the economic stimulus package, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, banking reform, gay marriage, and even immigration reform. But through it all, he has lacked the unwavering strength of conviction and sheer ferocity of will exhibited by FDR. If anything, so far Obama has been an able understudy of the former President, but with less than 5 months to go before the elections, and before America possibly passes into the hands of the corrupt Republicans, he better graduate from that position quickly. FDR rescued America from disaster and established a system that would serve it well for nearly a century. Obama may have rescued us from a financial meltdown but now it's time for him to make his vision of the future a reality.
It's not going to be easy. Like FDR, Obama has the advantages of personal likability and powerful oratory skills, but he also has an irresponsible and filibuster-happy enemy in Congress, a hostile Supreme Court, rich and powerful special interests hell-bent on destroying him, a media hungry for sensationalism, and widespread right-wing fanaticism that would be comical if it wasn't so deadly. And let's not forget that unlike FDR, who was lucky enough to have the very unpopular Prohibition to repeal, Obama has no such universally crowd-pleasing cards to play.
Quite simply, if Obama really wants to better the lives of the middle class and poor, he has to own the prospect of an all-out war with the Republicans and with special interests. Any expectation that the private sector or the Republican party might do the right thing in our current environment of extreme greed and brazen corruption is naïve, and will trip Obama up at every step. FDR was canny enough to recognize that the corporate leaders of his time and their Republican defenders would never go along with his plans voluntarily, and therefore he used his full Presidential authority to institute change, which included using executive powers to coerce his enemies as well as a liberal use of the bully pulpit to shame his opponents in public. It was a bare-knuckled tactic that FDR's cousin Teddy Roosevelt would have been proud of, and it worked.
Obama needs to do the same and even take it up a few notches. No matter what he does for our country, the Republicans will stonewall him out of spite and to derail his Presidency. The GOP cannot stomach the idea of a liberal President who stands for the people rather than for wealth and privilege. They could not do it at FDR's time and they cannot do it now. And unless Obama takes the fight to them, he will continue to play defense until his time is over and a Republican sits in the Oval Office, auctioning the future of America off to the highest corporate bidder. Moreover, he should not hesitate to take his case to the public. A President does not automatically look weak when he exposes the opposition's efforts to sabotage the government; he only looks weak if he is not willing to do anything about it.
Obama should rip the façade off Republican hypocrisy, shame the business community into doing what is best for the country, call out the demagogues who are poisoning our national debate and harming our democracy, close tax loopholes and make the rich pay their fair share of taxes, reduce the defense budget and eliminate big business subsidies to finance infrastructure spending which can generate jobs in the immediate future, reject any efforts to dismantle crucial public services, impose meaningful reform on Wall Street and the banking industry without backtracking or apologizing, and -most crucially - defer balancing the budget until our economy can fully recover and is out of danger. Running deficits is not a badge of honor but for a gigantic, complex, and vulnerable economy like ours right now it is a necessary evil.
FDR famously declared that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. The Republicans have used fear as their chief weapon for ages to scare, subdue, and mislead the American people, but never has it been deployed as smartly, purposefully, and ruthlessly as during the past 4 years.
It's now time for Obama to use it too, except not to intimidate the people of the United States but the GOP itself. It is time for the President to stop letting them blackmail him into making compromises that go against the interests of the nation, channel his inner FDR, and put the fear of God into the Republicans.
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