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How we misjudged ObamaBY: Steve Cohen 01.26.2010
A year ago, many observers (including me) thought Obama was the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In retrospect, FDR and Obama have more differences than similarities. But FDR was changed for the better by a personal crisis, and Obama might do the same.
The conciliator vs. the fighter:
As we pass the one-year anniversary of Barack Obama’s inauguration, it’s appropriate to try to figure out where we went wrong. Not where he went wrong, mind you, but where we misjudged him.
I’m one of the most culpable. The economic crash of 2008 prompted widespread comparisons with the great Crash of 1929— and, consequently, between Obama and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both men possessed the ability to speak inspirationally. These analogies produced unrealistic expectations as to how Obama would deal with hard times. I expected Obama to mobilize civilian armies of the formerly unemployed to rebuild bridges and pave roads, as they did during FDR’s New Deal.
The lesson of the past year, for me, is that FDR and Obama have more differences than similarities. Most pertinently, FDR was an executive with scant experience as a legislator or a teacher. Obama is just the opposite: an academic and a legislator with practically no executive experience.
And in retrospect, the two economic crises were different as well. By the time of the 1932 presidential election, the nation had been in a deep Depression for three years, and Americans were ready for radical action. In 2008, we were told the economy was on the brink of collapse, but relatively few of us were in desperate straits— partly because safety mechanisms enacted during the New Deal minimized bread lines and suicides this time around.
In hindsight, FDR was a fighter, a man who welcomed the hostility of the big banks and giant corporations. “I would like to have it said of my first administration [his first term] that, in it, these forces met their match,” he once declared. “Furthermore, I would like to have it said of my second administration that these forces met their master.”
Roosevelt uttered such belligerent statements with a beaming smile. He relished doing battle, and most of his listeners enjoyed seeing and hearing him do so. Obama is more of a conciliator; his attitude towards Wall Street and the healthcare industry lacks FDR’s belligerent tone.
FDR told the House and Senate what he expected them to do. He would never give the Senate and the House free rein to shape legislation. And Roosevelt repeatedly showed disdain for the opposition party, using a tone of contempt when he spoke of “these Republican leaders.” In contrast, Obama talks loftily of bipartisan cooperation. Yes, Roosevelt was arrogant, but people in distress perceived him as their savior.
Obama’s Chicago neighborhood
I gained a bit of insight into Obama’s world on a visit to Chicago a few months ago. A colleague of my wife’s leads informed tours of the University of Chicago neighborhood where Obama lived and worked, and we spent a day walking with him. I was struck by the imbalance between, on one hand, the academic institutions and bookstore and expensive homes and, on the other hand, the homey restaurant that was the president’s favorite and the black-owned barbershop he patronized.
Living and working in such contrasting places, it was natural for Obama to become a pleaser and a conciliator.
It’s often been written that FDR lacked depth of character until his crippling encounter with polio forced him to confront all problems he encountered— national as well as personal. Great men and women learn and grow from their personal crises. Could the recent plunge in Obama’s popularity do for him what polio did for FDR? I, for one, hope it’s not too late for such a shock to turn him around.♦
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