Monday, June 18, 2012

Some Things Never Change

Digby found a clip of FDR having fun at the expense of conservatives who opposed his programs in 1936.


For those of you who can’t see clips on-line, President Roosevelt is having a great time mocking his critics who promised to repeal and replace Social Security and other programs with something better and it won’t cost anything, just like what we’re hearing from the GOP today about the healthcare law.

Mr. Roosevelt died seven years before I was born so I only know him from history books and film — much the same way people under 40 know about JFK today — but when you talk about transformational presidents, as in those who left the country fundamentally different after they left office, Mr. Roosevelt was pretty much the gold standard for modern America. A lot of the things we take for granted, from Social Security to electricity in the rural parts of the country, came from his administration and his attempts to rescue the nation and the world from economic collapse. Not all of it worked, and he overreached on some things. And a lot of what he did was blatantly political.

FDR was probably one of the most coldly calculating politicians to hold the office. He knew exactly how to frame his message and his programs to gain maximum support from the voters, and he had the added advantage of knowing how to drive his opponents crazy by taunting and tweaking them. It had the desired result; his opponents — the rabid right wingers and isolationists — came off as bloviating ninnies and crackpots, and Mr. Roosevelt got in a good laugh.

On a larger point, Mr. Roosevelt cemented the idea that the President of the United States could be the leader of his political party without compromising his duties as the president of all the people. Sure, presidents had done that before; some more effectively than others, but it was always behind the scenes and the fiction that the president was above all the petty politics was maintained. FDR broke down that barrier by making it seem as if what was good for him politically was good for the nation and vice versa. His opponents called it demagoguery, but they were strangely silent when Richard Nixon, a Republican, did it (and with criminal intent) or when Ronald Reagan, who once worshiped Mr. Roosevelt, did it as well.

Now we’re hearing that Barack Obama is shamelessly using his office for political and partisan purposes by changing his administration’s application of certain laws regarding the children of undocumented immigrants. Oh, the horror of a president doing something in an election year that has a political as well as a practical and humanitarian angle to it. The denials by the White House are cute — “Oh no there’s no political motive at all, mi fiel amigo” — but you can tell by the delicious over-reaction from the right wing that this was a very deft move and that if they were presented with such an opportunity, they would do it in a heartbeat and crow about it on Fox News.

It also happens to be the right thing to do, which these days seems almost beside the point.