Very early on in Obama’s administration, you heard many of his supporters on the left begin to call for pressure from the mass movement in order for him to promote progressive legislation. Analogies were made with FDR, who was elected on a fairly centrist platform. Without protests from the unemployed et al, the assumption is that FDR would have continued on his centrist course, just as Obama is doing today. For example, in article titled “Obama needs the left”, the social democratic historian Michael Kazin wrote: “For the president to have a chance at becoming another FDR, he needs a big push from the left—or the conservative assumptions that have kept the nation in thrall for the past three decades will continue to hold sway,” while Nation Magazine editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel answered that “I think history shows us that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was compelled to abandon caution because of the great traumas of his day — the Great Depression gave him little choice but to be bold. And it was the great popular social movement of his time, working outside his administration, the unions at that time, that put pressure on FDR to carry out bolder reforms” when asked about the parallels between Obama and FDR.
This assumes that Obama is as susceptible to mass pressure as FDR. What if Obama was not a latter-day FDR but a repackaged Herbert Hoover, however? Would Hoover have pushed through Social Security legislation if he had been President? Maybe if the pressure was sufficient to do so, but clearly Hoover was more hostile to the poor and to the working class than the aristocratic FDR whose combination of noblesse oblige and long-term strategic thinking on behalf of the class he served made him more amenable to change.
It seems that liberal opinion is beginning to turn against the FDR=Obama construct and toward a son of Herbert Hoover analysis. In the latest Nation Magazine, you can read an article by William Greider titled “In the Shadow of Hoover”, which includes the following:
While he was in China, Barack Obama made a bizarre declaration that the US government must reduce its budget deficits in order to avoid “a double-dip recession.” The remark was alarming because it suggests the president may not fully understand the country’s economic predicament. Deficit spending is a cure for our troubles, not the cause. If Obama follows through and actually reduces the red ink, the Great Recession could be born again with new fury.
In an interview with Fox News, the president said: “It is important to recognize if we keep on adding to the deficit, even in the midst of this recovery, that at some point people could lose confidence in the US economy in a double-dip recession.” Maybe he didn’t mean it. Or was merely nodding to Chinese leaders, our leading creditor, who had scolded him for profligate spending.
Still, his backward logic gave me a chill. If Obama acts on it, he will be walking in the footsteps of Herbert Hoover, not Franklin Roosevelt, and I fear his presidency could be doomed as a result. I know that sounds too strong and brutally unfair, given the president’s energetic vision for the country and his early efforts to stimulate economic recovery. But history is often unfair to leaders who do not get their priorities straight and fail to deliver what they promise.
Despite pointing out repeatedly how much Obama is like Hoover in this article, Greider still holds out hope that Obama can rise to the occasion:
This is an opening for Obama to announce a major “course correction.” If he states the gravity of the situation honestly, people will not be angered by his truth-telling. They already see things are worse than officials acknowledge. If Obama opts instead for half-way measures–too little too late–then he will fall squarely under Hoover’s shadow.
Unlike Greider, Kevin Baker holds out no illusions as should be obvious from the title of the article “Barack Hoover Obama: The best and the brightest blow it again” that appeared in the July 2009 Harpers Magazine.
Like Herbert Hoover, Obama grew up as an outsider and overcame formidable odds—hence his constant promotion of personal responsibility and education. He came of age in a time when hardworking young men and women like him went to Wall Street or to Silicon Valley, and—once properly “incentivized” by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton—seemed to save the national economy, creating what appeared to be great general prosperity while doing well themselves. There’s no need to do battle with these strivers and achievers, individuals as accomplished in their fields as Obama is in his. All that’s required is to get them back on their feet, get the money running again, and maybe give them a few new rules to live by, a new set of incentives to get them back on track.
Just as Herbert Hoover came to internalize the “business progressivism” of his era as a welcome alternative to the futile, counterproductive conflicts of an earlier time, so has Obama internalized what might be called Clinton’s “business liberalism” as an alternative to useless battles from another time—battles that liberals, in any case, tended to lose.
Stepping back a bit from the historical analogies with FDR, Hoover, or even Lincoln with his “team of rivals”, the more interesting question is how shortsighted the U.S. ruling class is today. Since the working class and its allies are in such a weakened state as compared to the early 1930s when the U.S. still retained an industrial base, the only players on the stage are billionaires who run both political parties.
Some are agonizing about the future of the system, most notably financier George Soros who has styled himself as something of a seer/protector for the capitalist system, especially when it comes to challenging its myopic tendencies for short-term gain. Long before the current crisis, Soros wrote about the “capitalist threat” in the February 1997 Atlantic Monthly:
In The Philosophy of History, Hegel discerned a disturbing historical pattern — the crack and fall of civilizations owing to a morbid intensification of their own first principles. Although I have made a fortune in the financial markets, I now fear that the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our open and democratic society. The main enemy of the open society, I believe, is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat.
While it would be a mistake to approach this question in schematic base/superstructure terms, I would suggest that the failure of the ruling class to pay heed to Soros, Paul Krugman, and most of the hosts of MSNBC news shows is a function of the sea change in American society which has left the industrial base as a pile of rubble. If you’ve seen that passage in Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: a love story” with his father showing the director the flattened remains of his old workplace in Flint, Michigan, you’ll understand why a new FDR cannot emerge.
FDR was the ultimate “Fordist” president who viewed the auto, steel and rubber plants as mutually reinforcing bedrock components of the capitalist system. In order to get the economy moving again, it was necessary to enact social legislation that put money into the pockets of workers so that they could become customers of automobiles and other manufactured goods. It was also necessary to give grudging support for industrial unions that could provide the muscle to extract a living wage from the boss, including Henry Ford himself whose social doctrines were so much in line with FDR’s New Deal.
About 12.7 million U.S. workers, or 8 percent of the labor force, still held manufacturing jobs at the beginning of 2009. Fifty years ago, 14.6 million people, or 28 percent of all U.S. workers, were employed in factories. Given the trajectory of the auto industry, those figures can only continue to decline.
When workers are not concentrated in huge factories, but are dispersed in the primarily non-union service sector, they cannot exercise the leverage necessary to put the ruling class on the defensive. When Citibank, for example, sheds thousands of jobs—courtesy of Barack Obama’s chief financial adviser Robert Ruben who led to the bank’s collapse—there is barely a whimper as workers seek personal solutions to their plight.
The left has a tendency to lag one step behind history when it is in the midst of a financial crisis or some other cataclysmic event. By analogizing with FDR’s New Deal, we fail to account for the material forces that make such an outcome so unlikely.
While it is very difficult to predict what forms struggle will take in the future, we will be in a poor position to lead them if we do not understand class relationships as they exist rather than as as ghosts of crises past.