FDR, Obama and the need for opposition

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Some time ago, a reader presented me with a yellowed newspaper clipping from 1936, which seems to grow more relevant every day.

It is a syndicated column by Frank R. Kent of the Baltimore Sun and was written just after the re-election of President Franklin Roosevelt.

I’d never heard of Kent before, but if you look him up on the Internet, you will find that he was a lifelong Democrat and early supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, who got a wake-up call sometime during FDR’s first term and then spent the next 10 years dumbfounded that the American people were so easily bamboozled out of their birthright.

Kent was a Jeffersonian Democrat, who believed in small government, a balanced budget and states’ rights, and when he saw the direction Roosevelt intended to lead the country he put his heels in the ground and fought back with all his will. Nor did he apologize for being a critic of the president.

As he said, “The more power Mr. Roosevelt has, the more need there would seem to be for critical opposition.”

Kent’s column is a welcome reminder that the horror conservatives feel today at the willful blindness of their fellow citizens is nothing new. Indeed, I am more and more impressed by the similarities between our current regime and that of Roosevelt.

President Obama, although from a very different background than FDR, governs from almost the same sense of privilege. Both presidents embraced the most impoverished as their power base, but seem to feel more comfortable personally when surrounded by millionaires and celebrities. And in both cases, the poor have been willing to forgive a multitude of sins in their privileged leaders as long as the rhetorical alms kept flowing from the fount of noblesse oblige.

Indeed, it is the unworldly patience of the poor which allowed FDR to maintain power for so long while accomplishing so little of real value for the economy, and the same patience for President Obama which allowed him to maintain high popularity ratings throughout his first term even while his policies were dismantling the American dream.

But, really, how popular is President Obama? As popular as FDR after his first term? Probably not. His positive ratings have hovered mostly around 50 percent, and now are even a few points lower. Yet because of the media echo chamber constantly touting him as the Great Leader opposed only by small-minded Republican extremists, he should come with a warning like the one that is printed on the rear-view mirror: “Politicians may be smaller than they appear on television.”

Kent was infuriated by the same treatment given to FDR by the journalists of his day, and began his column with an excoriation of journalists who were more Democratic cheerleaders than champions of truth.

“The curious impression seems to have been created among some of Mr. Roosevelt’s more exuberant journalistic spokesmen that there was no one in the country opposed to him at all and that his election was unanimous.”

Sound familiar?

We saw the same expectation among journalists in 2012 that after President Obama was re-elected, everyone would get in line and back his programs wholeheartedly because, after all, “the people have spoken!”

But let’s not forget that Obama’s massive victory gave him just a hair over 51 percent of the popular vote, and a 4-point margin of victory in all. Compared to Roosevelt’s 61-37 trouncing of Gov. Alf Landon, it almost seems like President Obama would have been wise to keep quiet about mandates and “the will of the people” and just stay out of trouble for four years. But of course that isn’t going to happen.

Indeed, the first thing we heard from the White House and its supporters was that Republicans ought to start compromising in order to stay relevant. No real explanation of how they were going to be relevant by giving up and sounding like Democrats, but that was the order of the day.

But even in 1936, when Roosevelt really did win by a landslide, there were opponents like Frank Kent who could not sacrifice principle just to be popular, no matter how much pressure was brought to bear on them.

And pressure there was, in the form of what Kent called “a lot of nonsense about a new ‘era of good feeling,’ in which Mr. Roosevelt’s critics will join his admirers, and all anti-New Dealers promptly get behind the President... A nice sentimental, slushy time is to be had by all. No discordant note is to be sounded. Everybody is to sing in the angel chorus, with robes, harps and haloes provided by jolly Mr. Farley, who has promised there are to be no reprisals and is beamingly modest and magnanimous.”

Substitute Mr. Axelrod for Mr. Farley and we pretty much have the game plan for the first six months of the post-re-election Obama administration. The angel chorus is heard nightly on MSNBC, touting President Obama’s “charm offensive” while a harpist approximates the “thrill going up Chris Matthews’ leg.”

Apart from the rhetorical flourish that Mr. Kent achieved in his column, it is significant that the political situation he describes is approximately the same as what we face today.

Those who opposed FDR were painted as “malodorous millionaires,” “oppressors of the poor,” and “creatures of entrenched greed” just as Republicans today — and especially conservatives — are casually dismissed as minions of the evil “1 percent,” haters of the poor, killers of grandma, and racist Nazis who only oppose President Obama because he has darker skin than they do.

Kent pointed out that most of the 16.5 million people who voted against Roosevelt were “very average American citizens who deeply distrusted the wisdom of the Roosevelt policies — and still do.” He also noted that “it is a little sudden to rush them into an ‘era of good feeling,’ where they are expected to pledge cooperation with a man whose direction is uncertain and support a program before they know what it is.”

I hear echoes of Pelosi’s “we need to pass the bill to find out what is in it” from the Obama-care debate of the first term in Kent’s warning from 1936, and I can only wonder what other legislative monstrosities the president might think he can wring out of a demoralized Republican majority in the House.

Heck, looking around, I think he can achieve almost anything he sets his mind to, no matter how unthinkable it would have been just 10 years ago. We are slouching toward Bethlehem (or is that racing toward Armageddon) at a breakneck speed, and every time a Republican stands up and defends the principles on which our country was founded, he or she is surrounded by a pack of ravening journalists intent on cutting their feet out from under them. If you don’t support the “new orthodoxy” of America’s liberal establishment, then you are a danger to the country or, as Kent described it in 1936, “disgruntled losers... full of bile and bitterness.”

Rush Limbaugh famously said of Obama in early 2009, “I hope he fails,” and was widely assailed as unpatriotic for not getting behind the president and wishing him well. Limbaugh has amply defended himself on that charge, but Kent’s column about FDR is perhaps the best description I have read for why a president must earn support, not just expect it as a spoil of victory. It is also a perfect prescription of what would have to happen in a second Obama term for the country to have any hope of progress.

“Those who opposed him from conviction will hope sincerely he makes it possible for them to support him. If now, with added power and prestige, he sloughs off his shrill radical advisers, devotes himself to getting us back on an even keel, abandons his vengeful attitude toward business, and restores orderly administration, he will have a right to expect and will be entitled to the support of those who opposed him... Such support under such conditions would not only be due but it would be merely enlightened selfishness to give it.”

Let’s hope that is the future of a new, reunited America.

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