President-elect Barack Obama accomplished a great feat when he won the election two weeks ago, but when he assumes power on January 20, 2009, he will face a herculean task. At the top of his list will be the economy and the Terror Wars; not to mention making his election-winning promise of change a reality. Obama’s situation parallels President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, who, like Obama, inspired as much fear in conservatives as he did hope in the rest of the world.
FDR won the 1932 presidential election on a platform of change, promising a “New Deal” for the American people. During his second inaugural address, FDR said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” His policies revolutionized American government and gave birth to the notion of the Welfare State. No longer would the government sit idly while the country disintegrated. FDR realized that capitalism’s self-destructive nature could be contained by Keynesian economic policies which included direct government action to stimulate economic growth. Even after the Reagan Revolution, to this day Keynesian principles prevail as the dominant approach to economics. Today we take it for granted, but in the 1930s it was a radical idea. His critics called him a tyrant, a socialist and a traitor. Much of the business elite feared an imminent communist takeover. Fortunately, they were wrong and FDR’s reforms not only saved the U.S., but made it into the superpower it is today.
Obama has made similar promises and faces virtually the same criticisms. During the campaign McCain often called Obama’s economic policies socialist, playing on America’s Cold War era fears that equated it with Stalinist dictatorship. I am not going to get into the ridiculousness of these reactionary claims, but I will say that Obama’s economic reforms will be as profound as FDR’s and I can assure you that it won’t spell the end of American democracy.
The greatest challenge Obama faces is one that FDR did not have to deal with. FDR was able to showcase his New Deal policies years before the U.S. entered WWII thus he did not have to hedge his resources between the two. In this sense, Obama’s presidency might be reminiscent of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s, whose “War on Poverty” was sabotaged by the Vietnam War. Although LBJ’s programs were not as revolutionary as FDR’s, he sought to use America’s wealth to wipe out poverty in the U.S. LBJ left some lasting impacts, like Medicare and Medicaid; however, he found it impossible to fully implement his economic reforms while spending billions fighting foreign wars.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are projected to cost the U.S. $190 billion in 2008 and there is no indication that the tab will get any smaller in 2009. Even a small fraction of this cost could help Obama implement his most promising plans in healthcare and educational reform. Despite this, Obama has a few aces up his sleeve. With his bulldog Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and a Democrat-controlled Congress, Obama should have no problem pushing his plans through the legislature. But Obama needs to act quickly. FDR implemented most of his policies during his first 100 days in office, and Obama should do the same. The sooner Obama ends the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the sooner he can implement the social and economic reforms our country needs.
Obama said it best: “The true test of the American ideal is whether we’re able to recognize our failings and then rise together to meet the challenges of our time. Whether we allow ourselves to be shaped by events and history, or whether we act to shape them. Whether chance of birth or circumstance decides life’s big winners and losers, or whether we build a community where, at the very least, everyone has a chance to work hard, get ahead, and reach their dreams.“
Sounds good to me.
MICHAEL HOWER needs a vacation. You can reach him at email@example.com.