Barack Obama, who was hailed by the Left in 2008 as the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a four-term-winning liberal icon, is struggling to avoid becoming the second coming of one-term-and-done Jimmy Carter, and thereby hangs a tale. The tale is the Democrats’ endless quest for the next FDR — which began the day after the first one expired — and the moral is that this quest will always be hopeless. The fact is that Roosevelt — not the war leader and father of the Manhattan Project (who would be impeached by today’s Left as a war criminal), but the great and groundbreaking expander of government — cannot and will not come again.
The hope of the Left in 2008 was that he had come again, but this hope was gone by July 2010, just months after the health-care bill was passed by them with such celebration, and met by the public with so much disgust. “A big disappointment,” said Eric Alterman. Progressives were “gripped by gloom,” as Paul Waldman put it, and Michael Tomasky found “profound despair among liberals” about more than the angry reception that was given the president’s bills: “The storyline is much larger than merely that the stimulus has failed. It is that government is a failure. . . . The great bottom-line hope back in November 2008 was that Obama was going to restore trust in government and prove it could solve problems. That hasn’t happened. . . . That’s not an argument about the midterm elections. It’s about the party of government’s very raison d’etre.” “Remember when Barack Obama’s presidency was going to wash over the capital like a cleansing tide, renewing both the government’s ability to accomplish great things and restoring the people’s faith in that ability?” lamented Waldman. “It seems so much longer than a year and a half ago.”
Answers were sought as to how this had happened, but none seemed convincing, at least not to rational people. “The system is rigged, and it’s rigged against us,” said Eric Alterman. Hendrik Hertzberg said FDR was one lucky dog in that he inherited the Great Depression when it was three years old and such a calamity that no one could blame him for anything. Peter Beinart said that Obama was unlucky in that he lacked someone like the firebrand Huey Long, who “scared the crap out of the American establishment and sent some of its denizens scurrying into the arms of reformers like FDR.” (One wonders whether FDR, who confronted a social implosion, dangerous demagogues, and a world conflict, appreciated his good luck.) Put aside the fact that FDR was a great politician, who would no more have dreamed of passing a game-changing bill without strong and bipartisan backing than he would have thrown himself off a tall building in the belief he could levitate; he still had an advantage that no modern progressive will ever replicate: He became president at the one time in our history when the federal government was too small for its burdens and truly cried out to be expanded.
#page#Cousin Theodore, FDR’s lodestar in things large and small, had been correct at the turn of the century when he said that the industrial revolution (along with and beside a mass immigration) had rendered the laissez-faire model obsolete. Child labor, sweatshops, and the Triangle fire had demonstrated the need for some regulation. In a complex economy, people could fail through no fault of their own, and social insurance seemed feasible in the 1930s. In an era when few people grew very old, it seemed right and sustainable to save those who did from complete destitution. Believe it or not, unions in those times sometimes did positive things. Roosevelt got electoral thumbs-ups from voters in the 1934 and 1936 cycles, but they slammed on the brakes in the 1938 midterms, effectively saying “thus far and no further” and putting an end to this era of government growth. From then on, the country would want what Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat have called “the government that the New Deal liberals had built, but run by conservatives.” This is what they got with Eisenhower and Kennedy, two pragmatic centrists who abhorred ideology and whose approval ratings were higher for longer periods than those of any other president since modern-day polling began.
Their approach would emerge as the public consensus, but the problem was that what most of the country thought of as the ceiling, the progressive faction continued to see as the floor. They talked of the New Deal’s “unfinished business” and kept on seeking a hero to take care of it, believing that history moves to the left and that progressive eras are followed by times of consolidation, which in turn are followed by times of still further action, in which the country will move left again. Lyndon Johnson tried to fulfill this hope, but his excesses set off a whole new dynamic, consisting of liberal overreach, a conservative backlash against it, and then a moment of more-or-less moderation — to be followed, once memories faded, by liberal excess again. This was back-and-forth alternation, instead of progress in a single direction interrupted with pauses. Johnson’s Great Society ran into a wall in the 1966 midterms, and then spawned a run of Republican presidents.
Clinton, after running as a moderate against the moderate George H. W. Bush, got carried away and tried to pass a health-care reform that spawned the Republican capture of Congress. Clinton then triangulated his way back to the center, permitting (or forcing) the younger George Bush to run as a compassionate conservative. After this, Obama won in a landslide after the fiscal implosion, made a swerve to the left sharper than Bill Clinton’s, and triggered the Tea Party’s rise. This led to the Democrats’ drubbing in the 2010 midterms, which progressives saw as racist, fascist, hateful, and simply vicious, but which was in fact completely predictable and similar to what had happened quite often before.
But this time was by far the worst one for liberals, as they were sure they had found the right man, the one they could love as the Right had loved Reagan: the right voice, the right life, and at the right moment — a financial crisis they could blame upon Wall Street — that would drive people straight into government’s arms. It didn’t happen. A populist movement arose, but against government power. Occupy Wall Street disgusted most people. Unions lost their prolonged war on Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. People mocked Obama’s website feature “Life of Julia,” which the Left thought idyllic. “You didn’t build that!” was an epic miscalculation that may end a presidency. Massachusetts, in a rebuke to his health-care proposal, gave “Ted Kennedy’s seat” to Scott Brown. Things like these never happened to Roosevelt, who met the needs of his times, was allowed to build big because he was building on nothing, and had a long way to go before the public resistance to government power kicked in.
In 1933, government had to get bigger. Now it has to reform, devolve, cut back, and control itself, before it shoves us off the cliff into catastrophe. This is why “the new FDR” is now in such trouble — and why the search for the next one will end in more tears.
– Noemie Emery is a contributing editor of The Weekly Standard and writes a weekly column for the Washington Examiner.