Obama's attacks on Bain follow in FDR's 1936 re-election footsteps except for one key aspect: a full-throated case for government.
Yes, there are still determined groups…[who would]…steal the livery of great national constitutional ideals to serve discredited special interests. As guardians and trustees for great groups of individual stockholders they wrongfully seek to carry the property and the interests entrusted to them into the arena of partisan politics…
The principle that they would instill into government if they succeed in seizing power is well shown by the principles which many of them have instilled into their own affairs: autocracy toward labor, toward stockholders, toward consumers, toward public sentiment. Autocrats in smaller things, they seek autocracy in bigger things. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” - Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936
In seeking to identify Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney as an unfeeling member of the nation’s wealthy elite, President Obama is using tactics reminiscent of those used by Franklin Roosevelt in his own bid for re-election in 1936. In that campaign, FDR sought to draw a clear distinction between what he and his Democratic colleagues represented—the interests of the average working American—versus what he saw as the Republican promotion of a return to the economic status quo. But unlike FDR, President Obama is shying away the argument that government must be the countervailing force against entrenched financial interests.
By 1936, conservative critics of the New Deal had launched a persistent and hard-hitting campaign against FDR's policies, labeling them un-American and contrary to the Constitution. At the forefront of this effort was the American Liberty League, a privately funded anti-government organization that ruthlessly attacked his economic policies as little more than a drive to usurp the constitution and take the United States down the path toward socialism. But thanks to the fact that the Liberty League was never a truly populist movement (although it tried to portray itself as such), as well as the fact that it was financed by some of the most powerful business interests in the county, including the leaders of the DuPont Company, Chase National Bank, Standard Oil, and a number of other wealthy individuals and corporations, FDR was able to discredit its efforts as little more than a poorly concealed attempt to restore the country to the laissez-faire economic policies of the past.
In doing so, FDR reminded the American people again and again that the rightwing drive to restore these policies was not based on the elite’s desire to protect and promote free enterprise, but rather based on their unabashed desire to protect and promote their own wealth and power. Under such an economic system, which had been in place during the 1920s, the “savings of the average family, the capital of the small-businessmen, the investments set aside for old age,” what FDR rightly called “other people’s money,” were the tools with which the economic elite dug itself in. Indeed, as he went on in perhaps his most famous 1936 campaign address, it was critical not to forget how:
Throughout the nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly. Individual initiative was crushed in the cogs of a great machine. The field open for free business was more and more restricted. Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise.
In our own era marked by declining wages, the outsourcing of jobs, and an ever-increasing share of the nation’s wealth residing in the hands of the financial barons of Wall Street—whose willingness to risk “other people’s money” has hardly diminished—FDR’s assault on what he identified as “the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties” rings as true today as it did in the mid 1930s.
It is for this reason that President Obama’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s record as the head of Bain Capital have proven so effective. Having been burned in the 2007-2008 financial collapse that led to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the American people still harbor a good deal of hostility towards the bonus- and bailout-receiving bank executives whose reckless behavior brought the nation and the rest of the world to the brink of economic ruin. Based on the response to the president’s efforts to paint Romney as one of these elite, it also appears that they remain skeptical of the financial titans' ability to pull us out of the Great Recession. What is missing from the president's attacks, however, is the one key element that FDR used in convincing the American people that they should support his re-election in 1936: the clear and unequivocal case for government.
In the wake of the more than 30-year assault on government launched by Ronald Reagan in 1980, President Obama and the Democratic Party may be loath to use the case for government as part of their strategy to win the 2012 election. But as FDR pointed out in the mid 1930s, we have now reached a point like the 1920s where for too many of us “the political equality we once had won” has become “meaningless in the face of economic inequality.” Why? Because, as was the case in America’s gilded age, “a small group” has “concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor—other people's lives.” As a consequence, we also find, as FDR did, that “for too many of us life…[is] no longer free; liberty no longer real; men…[can] no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.”
To counter such entrenched economic interests, FDR insisted that “the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of government,” and he urged his fellow citizens to vote for him and his party as the best means to ensure that government by, of, and for the people would continue to flourish. For, as he often noted, what was really at stake in this struggle between the average citizen and the interests of the wealthy was the state of democracy itself. In the same election speech, for example, he also observed:
Unhappy events abroad have re-taught us two simple truths about the liberty of a democratic people. The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic State itself.
The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living.
FDR’s belief in the need for government to serve as an active instrument of social and economic justice won him the greatest electoral landslide in American history. It also helped preserve American democracy in an age when democratic government was under siege worldwide. Surely these are two lessons the Obama administration might turn to as it struggles to win the hearts and minds of the American people at this critical moment in our history.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.