The conventional reading is that, having won a furious fight for health-care reform, Barack Obama has moved on. But that reading of the president’s mind is wrong.
He shall return.
Today, Obama is tackling Wall Street reform. Soon, to the sudden surprise of many, he’ll address immigration reform. This has created a portrait of a linear presidency, one that wins the big legislative battle and promptly leaves the debate behind. When, for example, was the last time we heard much about the stimulus (futilely redubbed the economic recovery package)?
However, in the months ahead, we will hear a great deal about it, and, as summer wanes and the midterm campaign peaks, about the health-care bill as well. The president, whose sense of timing appears immune to the 24-hour news cycle, has the patience to see a strategy through storms like the Scott Brown squall. So he will first take care of the monumental business of change; then turn to a political narrative that capitalizes on two years of achievement unparalleled in nearly half a century or more.
The goal is not only to minimize Democratic losses in November, but to reassure the public as it begins to experience a once-in-a-generation sweep of social and economic transformation.
It’s happened this way before.
In 1936, after the passage of Social Security, the Republican Party chose to run against it by fanning the lie that it was theft—that people who paid into the system would never get anything back. The GOP claimed that workers would be regimented and even required to wear dog tags, and that the program represented the end of freedom and the dawn of “socialism” in America. Employers slipped this propaganda into employee pay packets.
The fallout was felt in a public square that increasingly resembled a public brawl. Franklin Roosevelt faced disaffected anger and protest groups similar to those now assailing Obama. According to the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the period was defined by “the politics of upheaval.”
Roosevelt’s tea-baggers came in several different brews. The Liberty League of the resentful wealthy congregated in the financial canyons of Manhattan. The group’s improbable leader, Roosevelt’s onetime mentor and his predecessor as the Democratic presidential nominee, Al Smith, delivered a nationally broadcast speech announcing: “The New Deal smells of the stench of Communist Russia.” Such fulminations were amplified by a lunatic fringe, seemingly millions strong and ironically powered by a right-wing radio talker, Father Charles Coughlin, who accused FDR of being a tool of Wall Street. (A foreshadowing of Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell’s tactic of protecting Wall Street speculators by accusing Obama of favoring them with bailouts.) Coughlin peddled anti-Semitism and hissed that the Depression was caused by an “international conspiracy of Jewish bankers.” Then, as now, the more things changed, the more reaction was the same.
Also, then as now, the tempo of change was dizzying. In early 1936, a presidential election year, the president who had driven the change was falling in the Gallup Poll. Worried Democrats warned that Roosevelt had to respond—especially that he had to explain Social Security.
The president bided his time as he completed a legislative agenda that raised taxes on the wealthy and reformulated New Deal laws previously declared unconstitutional by a Scalia-like Supreme Court. Then he swung into action in October—not just responding, but turning the tables on the Republicans and the Tea Party’s forebears. He trumpeted the benefits of Social Security and unemployment insurance and one by one detailed and dismissed the concocted fears as outright “deceit.” He elicited roars from tens of thousands of people packed into Madison Square Garden, proclaiming: “Never in our history have [the] forces ... of organized money and organized mob ... been so united against one candidate.” He paused and spoke the rest in a slow drumbeat: “They are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome that hatred.” FDR ultimately won every state except Maine and Vermont.
This is a midterm year, not a presidential election. But expect Obama to emerge from the legislative battleground soon just as Roosevelt did in 1936. Obama will answer the fears about health reform. He will pass Wall Street reform; already the GOP hard-line, the threat of a Senate filibuster, is looking like a squishy Maginot Line as McConnell finds his troops anxious to go AWOL. Even in the name of “no,” some Republicans fear being identified with today’s “economic royalists.”
Obama is rhetorically cooler than Roosevelt. But by fall, his narrative will tout a crackdown on financial institutions that are “bilking people,” as he put it this week in New York with a platoon of investment bankers in attendance. He bluntly rebutted the charge that the bill will enable bailouts; it will “put a stop to them,” he said—then, echoing Roosevelt, declared, “that’s the truth.”
As it was for FDR, the indispensable core of Obama’s narrative is economic recovery—not a package of programs, but results that voters feel in their own lives. By 1936, unemployment was down by half of the 1932 level and still falling; national income had risen by 50 percent. FDR could claim the credit for the New Deal. Obama is on the verge of discovering whether he can make a similar recovery claim now—or if he will have to wait until 2012.
For economists, the Great Recession that almost became a second Great Depression is now over; for people, it won’t be over until the economy is generating a wave of new jobs and providing a sense of security. The April jobs report due out in early May—and subsequent reports for May, June, and July—will set the pace. They will determine how strongly, and how soon, Obama can reprise the Roosevelt narrative.
It’s possible he may have the economic news he needs to produce midterm results very different from the dire predictions of a Republican takeover of the House. Even a likely defeat in Congress on immigration reform will animate a critical voting bloc; Republicans just won’t be able to control their Hispanic-bashing.
The Politico, which helped give the Tea Partiers quite a ride, now notes that its importance was always exaggerated and asks: “Is the Tea Party running out of steam?” Soon enough, it will go the way of Father Coughlin. Similarly the Party of “No” will go the way of the Liberty League—and the Republicans will have to reinvent themselves with a new conservative vision to supplant the pastiche of self-delusion, invective, and lies.
Their reluctance to change may be as bitter as the resentment that drives the “birthers” in the Arizona legislature, who have just passed a bill requiring the president to prove he was born in America before he can appear on the state’s 2012 ballot. In the spirit of Jonathan Swift, let me suggest that we let Arizona secede—or return it to Mexico. (Note to Michele Bachmann: Swift didn’t mean it; neither do I.)
We are about to turn the page in our politics and our national life. The economy is rebounding. The narrative of change will find an increasingly receptive electorate. And a new era for America will be born.