Tuesday, July 3, 2012

FDR Got Things Done. So Has Obama.

Sunday was a bad day for FDR in the New York Times Sunday Review section.

Ross Douthat, showing a level of understanding of the New Deal that I would find deficient in an undergraduate, used FDR to bash President Obama's decision to pursue health care reform. Bill Scher used FDR's allegedly cozy relationship with corporate heads to praise Obama. Both showed how little they understand about the politics of the 1930s.

Douthat's argument is that, despite the Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, Obama was foolish to pursue it early in his first term--that choice, he says, was "disastrous." His evidence for that is that the legislation is "deeply unpopular." (Douthat never deigns to evaluate the actual merits of the legislation. Evidently that is not important--timing is all.)

Douthat says the law is unpopular not because people don't understand it (the usual Democratic argument) but because of the timing. See, people are just mad that Obama pushed this legislation before the economy improved enough. "By turning from economic crisis management to sweeping social legislation before the crisis had actually abated, Obama made himself look more ideological than practical and more liberal than pragmatic." Evidently Obama did this by pursuing a goal he had explicitly campaigned on (the nerve!) and by embracing Republican ideas (eschewing a public option and accepting the individual mandate instituted by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts).

Douthat's points are self-evidently wrong on the surface, but he deepens his errors by claiming the authority of history. "This was not a mistake the icons of the liberal past made," he intones. "Franklin Roosevelt spent two years defining himself as a Depression fighter before he set out to establish Social Security."

To call this point simplistic would be an understatement.

FDR announced his intention to implement Social Security in June 1934, 15 months into his presidency. He signed it into law in August 1935, 29 months into his presidency.

Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in March 2010, 14 months into his presidency. According to Douthat, 15 months is the difference between political success and political disaster. This is not an argument. It is an assertion without evidence or logic.

More to the point, Douthat's praise of FDR ignores the rather significant fact that FDR had hardly ended the Great Depression when he pushed for Social Security. In fact, he pushed it because the first New Deal had failed, recovery was sluggish, and he was under political pressure to do something, anything, so he could point to successes going into the 1936 election. FDR didn't push for Social Security because the "economic crisis" had passed, as Douthat implies, but because it hadn't.

Scher's argument is a little better. His point is that Obama is to be commended, not criticized, for working with corporate interests on health care. Obama has been unfairly criticized by liberals, Scher says, who neglect how much their heroes FDR and LBJ did the same thing.

It is true that, as Scher says, FDR "was quite adept at bargaining with corporations" in the First 100 Days. What he neglects to note is that the major policy he negotiated with business, the National Recovery Act, is almost universally considered an abject failure.

FDR's most notable successes came after he stopped trying to appease big business. He learned that his attempts to do so were futile, since they excoriated him anyway. By August 1934, they had formed the anti-FDR Liberty League and dedicated their efforts to defeating him in 1936. So much for "bargaining."

After business turned on him, FDR not only passed Social Security, but the Wagner Act (which established union rights) and the WPA (which created jobs for the unemployed). These liberal policies were passed over the objections of businessmen, not by compromise with them.

Scher's point, however, is still a reasonable one: "most of the time politics is exasperating and irritating, not euphoric and cathartic." That's true, and it is also true (though Scher doesn't note it) that FDR returned to a detente with business when American involvement in World War II loomed.

I have no idea whether FDR would have, in Obama's shoes, pushed for health care in his first year in office, or if he would have sought to appease drug companies and the Chamber of Commerce whenever he did it. What I do think I know is that he would be proud of Obama for having gotten it done.

FDR's commission on Social Security recommended including health insurance as part of that program, but FDR feared (probably correctly) that it would be too much for Congress to swallow.

But he did not give up on the idea. In January 1944, when he proposed his postwar political agenda, the "Economic Bill of Rights," he included the following: "The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health."

In short, we owe the very idea of health care as a right to FDR. Given that fact, and his own rather flexible approach to politics, I rather doubt he would care very much how--or when--Obama got it done. FDR got things done. So has Obama.

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