The president of the United States was burnt-out and beleaguered two-and-a-half years into his first term, a weathered edition of the once sunny reformer who had -- seemingly a lifetime ago -- swept easily into office promising progressive remedies to hard times.
The economy bequeathed to him had been a grim inheritance; years of deregulatory fervor had given license to ingenious new methods of corporate abuse, artificially sweetening the markets and setting the stage for their massive, inevitable sugar crash. Unemployment had swelled to unthinkable heights, foreclosures and bank failures had become routine epidemics, and the White House's aggressive solutions to the financial crisis were decried as socialist by the Right and ineffectual by the Left. Measures to stimulate the economy were repeatedly impeded, nullified, or hamstrung by the hobgoblins of the old political guard, while the president's job approval ratings -- like the recovery he was charged with kindling -- failed to accelerate beyond a fifty percent that reeked of the half-empty variety. The buoyancy and promise that accompanied his election had, three years later, mostly given way to a mire of joblessness, hopelessness, and fear. It was 1935.
Barack Obama is not Franklin Roosevelt. The former president was more impatient, more insistent, less of a consensus builder than the Oval Office's current tenant. Their challenges are not the same -- not exactly -- nor are their political circumstances. Roosevelt enjoyed colossal Democratic majorities in Congress, but was handcuffed by a bullheaded and openly cantankerous Supreme Court; Obama must negotiate a gleefully regressive Republican House, but benefits from the historical record of Roosevelt's New Deal -- the quintessential example of progressive economic theory pressed into action, which, by any metric, also happens to be the most resoundingly successful fiscal program in American history. What unites the two men (apart from a belief, borne of a clear-eyed view of our national experience and etched in the wills of our Founding Fathers, in the power of a people-driven government to solve our common problems) are the dead ideas that have obstructed them, those tired, feverish allegations that so often clutter the road to prosperity.
Seventy-five years before the Tea Party first raged blindly against our shared democracy, another well-heeled mob of false-populists waged war on the middle class. The American Liberty League was organized and financed by the wealthiest of the wealthy: industrial and financial tycoons from Sun Oil, General Motors, Chase National Bank, U.S. Steel; the Koch Brothers of the day. They were the original Chickens Little of progressive freedom-snatching, confronting at every turn the president's efforts to end the Depression with desperate accusations -- of, alternately, fascism, communism, and socialism -- and conveniently foggy notions about the Constitution. They loathed regulation, decried workers' rights, and shuddered at the idea that the government could offer solutions to the financial meltdown. If their mission statement sounds familiar in 2011, well, it should: the League billed itself as a "nonpartisan organization founded to defend the Constitution and defend the rights and liberties guaranteed by that Constitution."
They weren't alone. When Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in August of 1935, conservatives circled the wagons. "The lash of the dictator will be felt," warned Congressman Daniel Reed (R-NY), while his colleague John Taber (R-NY) announced that "Never in the history of the world has any measure been brought here so insidiously designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers and to prevent any possibility of the employers providing work for the people." The former head of the Chamber of Commerce, Silas Strawn, accused FDR of attempting to "Sovietize the country," and the fervor swelled through the ranks, echoing in the cloak rooms and boardrooms of America.
Communism. Fascism. Socialism. Sovietism. Anti-Constitution. Anti-freedom. Anti-American. The names may change, but the targets are always the same: any measure of progress that might make our lives a little better, our institutions a bit more secure, our country perhaps infinitesimally fairer, must pass through the ugly crucible of libertarian grandstanding. The ones that have managed to squeak through -- Social Security, the minimum wage, antitrust laws, environmental protections, the GI Bill, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Medicare, and Health Care Reform, to name a few -- have done so in spite of the wildest efforts of the conservative movement du jour to portray them as ungodly usurpations of freedom, liberal affronts to some fictional version of the Constitution that validates their desire to remain proudly selfish. America has thrived on these liberal triumphs for a century, but where is the legacy left behind by those who, in the name of freedom, fought tooth and nail against each of these reforms? It's freedom, alright: the freedom of the banking industry to run our ship of state aground with reckless, unregulated practices, the freedom of businesses to ignore the threat of global climate change, and the freedom of the wealthiest Americans to refrain from contributing to any efforts that might lift up the nation entire.
In 2009, now-Speaker John Boehner spoke on the floor of the House in the midst of the debate over Health Care Reform, and proclaimed that he was "not going to dim the lights of freedom for my kids, and theirs, nor for anyone's in this country." In 1961, Ronald Reagan argued (as part of, no joke, a conservative campaign called Operation Coffee Cup) that the passage of Medicare would mean that "one of these days, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free." And when the same claims were hurled against the New Deal generations prior, Franklin Roosevelt answered them -- answered them all -- in a Fireside Chat:
"Let me put to you another simple question: Have you as an individual paid too high a price for these gains? Plausible self-seekers and theoretical die-hards will tell you of the loss of individual liberty. Answer this question also out of the facts of your own life. Have you lost any of your rights or liberty or constitutional freedom of action and choice? Turn to the Bill of Rights of the Constitution, which I have solemnly sworn to maintain and under which your freedom rests secure. Read each provision of that Bill of Rights and ask yourself whether you personally have suffered the impairment of a single jot of these great assurances. I have no question in my mind as to what your answer will be."
As it was then, so it is today. No matter how many times Keynesian principles and progressive initiatives prove themselves right, conservatives will be waiting in the wings to cry wolf once more. This time around, their tactics have slowed our economic recovery by hampering the stimulus and forcing the extension of the Bush tax cuts (which dramatically decrease revenue and drive up the deficit). In his own day, Roosevelt responded to his attackers with an appeal to reason, and in 1936 was rewarded with an electoral college vote of 523 to 8.
Of course, these are different times, and reason has not aged well in America. President Obama's ability -- and willingness -- to overcome the vast stone wall of his accusers in order to fully implement time-honored progressive policies will ultimately determine whether history will indeed repeat itself in 2012.