A Democratic president is in trouble. He is seeking a second term in the midst of a grim economic crisis -- one of the worst ever to hit the United States. The average unemployment rate is an astonishing 16.9% -- although it has dropped from an equally astounding 24.9%. The jobless number amounts to six to eight million people. A prestigious polling organization has found that, because of broad disapproval of his actions in his first term, his opponent will grab 57% of the vote and he can win at best only 16 states. In addition, a conservative Supreme Court has invalidated some of his most important measures to deal with the economic collapse. In face of this dire situation, few observers give him much of a chance. Yet he goes on to win in a landslide. That president was Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the year was 1936.
How much of his experience reflects what is happening today to Barack Obama? There are some eerie parallels and some obvious differences -- but the parallels are significant. Obama, of course, is in the throes of the most grievous downturn since the Great Depression. Unemployment has stayed stubbornly around 8% (though it is an improvement over the 10% or so he faced in the depths of the crisis). Some 12.7 million people are out of work. Polling data shows the presidential race remains too close to call. Moreover, a conservative Supreme Court has opened the floodgates to millions of dollars of corporate money and extravagant donations from right-wing magnates to defeat Obama (even with that same court saving his health care plan).
The ideological fight today also revolves around the same issues, as in 1936. The Republicans are espousing, as they did 76 years ago, smaller government, deregulation, trickle-down economics, deference to the wealthy, pro-business legislation, hostility to more federal spending, and accusations that Democrats are pushing for "Socialistic" planning. The Democrats, meantime, are running on 1936-like financial regulations, preservation of social reforms (for Obama, health care; for FDR in 1936, Social Security), assistance to small business, help for the unemployed, housing recovery, and berating the rich who are trying to block change.
Another similarity: FDR's opponent in the 1936 election was a decent, moderate Republican governor, Alf Landon of Kansas, who was driven to the right by the exigencies of his political situation and the demands of his base. Landon had at one time accepted many of Roosevelt's programs -- regulation of stocks and securities, payments to the aged, conservation, federal subsidies to farmers. However, by the end of his campaign, he turned harshly conservative, demanding that all relief efforts be handled by the states, denouncing Social Security, and raising the bugaboo of Big Government. Landon, in addition, had an abysmal speaking style and uninspiring personality; he was capable of uttering observations like "Wherever I have gone in this country, I have found Americans."
Obama's opponent, of course, has many similar infirmities. Mitt Romney, a liberal Republican as governor of Massachusetts who tolerated abortion, accepted gays, and formulated a health care plan like Obama's -- has subsequently turned sharply to the right as he began his run for the presidency and adopted every plank of his party's Tea Party wing. He now champions a reduction of taxes on the rich, cut-backs on social spending, an end to many financial regulations, and a retro immigration policy. He has also turned out to be Landon-like in his personal style -- a colorless candidate with a flat speaking manner who makes public utterances, like "I like to fire people"; "I'll bet you $10,000"; "I am not concerned about the poor"; "corporations are people."
A few last similarities: Obama has earned the shrill enmity of the business community, like FDR, losing fundraising support from corporate givers, many who defected to the Republican candidate. At the same time, he has benefited from an improving economic situation, albeit of modest proportions, as did FDR -- which has kept him competitive. And Obama, again like FDR, has a rousing enough personality to be able to assemble an apparently devoted coalition of voters which has kept him marginally ahead of his opponent in the face of the widespread layoffs.
2012, of course, is not 1936; FDR is a different figure than Obama. Today's electorate is much larger, more middle-class, and far more diverse. There are economic stabilizers now that didn't exist in 1936. There are palpable differences in media, technology, race relations, global power, health, and in the tone and texture of society. Nonetheless, in spite of the advances over the past seven or so decades, joblessness still seems to have the same impact, regardless of era. But Obama can look back on at least one Democrat plagued by a problem of large-scale unemployment far worse than his own who nonetheless won a second term .
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