Thursday, April 19, 2012
It's 1936 All Over Again
By DANIEL HENNINGER, WSJ
With a small group of credulous millionaires joining him at a White House séance the other day to support the Buffett Rule, the Conjurer-in-Chief called forth the spirit of Ronald Reagan, who the president averred would have supported his magic tax on "millionaires." There have been 43 other presidents of the United States. The last one you would associate with Barack Obama is Ronald Reagan.
But faced with the rather unhappy challenge of mounting a re-election campaign coincident with three years of rampant unemployment and next-to-no growth, little wonder Mr. Obama is looking for help from afar. And so it is that the ghost of a president past is indeed haunting the Obama White House—the ghost of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
FDR ran his first re-election campaign in 1936 when the United States was mired in the Great Depression. Barack Obama is running for the last time amid what he himself immortalized as the Great Recession. No surprise that Mr. Obama in his campaign speeches is channeling the master of Depression-era politics.
It worked back then. FDR walloped a somnambulant Republican candidate, Alf Landon, of whom the columnist Westbrook Pegler wrote: "Considerable mystery surrounds the disappearance of Alfred M. Landon of Topeka, Kansas." But will Roosevelt's politics work against Mitt Romney, who we presume will report for duty?
Franklin Roosevelt kicked off the 1936 campaign with an Oct. 31 speech to the Democratic faithful in New York's Madison Square Garden. The Obama re-election campaign began April 3, with the president's now-famous "Social Darwinism" speech at the Associated Press luncheon in Washington.
The similarity between the two speeches—both in tone and targets—is striking.
FDR: "Nine mocking years with the golden calf . . . "
Obama: "It was a decade . . . when profits for many of these companies soared."
FDR: "We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking . . ."
Obama: "Our entire financial system was nearly destroyed."
FDR: "I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match."
Obama: "The share of national income flowing to the top 1% of people in this country has climbed to levels last seen in the 1920s. That is not fair. It is not right."
FDR: "Of course we will continue our help for the crippled, for the blind, for the mothers . . . "
Obama: "Two million mothers and young children would be cut from a program that gives them access to healthy food."
FDR: "Their solution for the relief problem is to end relief—to purge the rolls by starvation."
Obama: " . . . a cut that, according to one nonpartisan group, would take away health care for about 19 million Americans—19 million."
In nearly every significant address since the AP speech—on the Buffett Rule, on the manipulators of the oil markets—Mr. Obama has revisited these themes.
The differences between America in 1936 and America 76 years later hardly matter. In a time of genuine economic anxiety, as now, Team Obama has chosen a plausible strategy: During tough times, the government will be there for you.
However, the differences between Barack Obama and Franklin Roosevelt as retail politicians do matter in 2012. The Obama campaign can borrow Roosevelt's content, but they can't teach Barack Obama how to be FDR.
FDR's 1936 speech, however tough and accusatory, had Roosevelt's natural personal buoyancy. Barack Obama has no such gift for popular uplift. Reagan and Bill Clinton had it, and it was an underestimated piece of George W. Bush's two successful presidential runs.
Barack Obama is, frankly, a pretty grim guy. He does try to mitigate the downer mood—"This is also about growth"—but ultimately his audiences always hear about the ditch someone else put them in and the superhuman effort "we" have to make to pull out of this deep hole.
Barack Obama is grim because he believes, and has always believed, that dark forces are actively at work in America to shaft the middle class. So do his closest supporters. So you run on anger and antipathy.
Can you re-run Roosevelt's Depression strategy without Roosevelt? In tough times, some voters will buy it. But I don't think enough will to produce a majority of the beleaguered.
Barack Obama is asking people to cast a less-than-hopeful vote in November. Resentment is not something most people in 21st-century America carry around in the front of their heads. Once Barack Obama stirs it up, as he's doing now, he has to sustain it for six months. He is asking people to vote out of something resembling, well, depression.
Incidentally, of the final four Republican primary candidates, three were about as personally grim and earnest as the incumbent. Only one ran with unmistakable personal optimism.