Perry on Politics: Seeking historic instinct

Published by Tim McNulty on .


By James M. Perry

Many pundits have declared that Barack Obama's inaugural speech proves to one and all that he is a liberal.

Once upon a time, that wasn't such a bad thing. Franklin D. Roosevelt was a liberal, and most Americans thought that was fine. That was then; this is now.

Barack Obama is no FDR.

Mr. Obama reaches out time and again to the middle class. "We believe," he said in his second inaugural address, "that America's prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class." He wants to rejuvenate those people, make their lives better. That's good and necessary. The riddle is, he doesn't seem much interested in that class of Americans hardly anyone mentions these days -- the working class, meaning poor people. FDR reached out to that one-third of the nation he saw as "ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." In his inaugural address in 1937 that followed his landslide victory over Alf Landon of Kansas, Mr. Roosevelt (above) never mentioned, never even alluded to the middle class, even though they had suffered in the Great Depression too. "The challenge of our democracy," he said, is to improve the lives of those who were denied the "necessities of life."

And how would FDR meet this challenge?

By government action. He said he and his administration "recognized the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization. Repeated attempts at their solution (by his Republican predcessors, presumably) without the aid of government had left us baffled and bewildered."

Not just action by the Federal government. Our "historic instinct," he said, held out "the clear hope that government within communities, government within the separate states, and government of the United States can do the things the times require, without yielding its democracy."

Mr. Obama in his speech went out of his way to make clear that government wasn't always the answer. "We have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority," he said, "nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society's ills can be cured through government alone." Mr. Roosevelt didn't believe all of society's ills could be cured through government alone either, but he believed that those that mattered to him most could.

Mr. Obama did give a nod to caring for poor, disadvantaged Americans. "Together," he said, "we resolved Obamainauguralthat a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life's worst hazards and misfortunes." Hazards and misfortunes? Being hungry? Being homeless? Being out of work.?

Mr. Obama and Mr. Roosevelt do seem to agree on one point -- collective action, that Americans need to unite. "Now, more than ever," Mr. Obama said, "we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people." Mr. Roosevelt said, "To maintain a democracy of effort requires a vast amount of patience in dealing with different methods, a vast amount of humility But out of the confusion of many voices rises an understanding of dominant political need. Then political leadership can voice common ideals, and aid in their realization." Maybe.

Mr. Roosevelt aroused ferocious opposition. His wildest opponents claimed he was "a traitor to his class." A famous New Yorker cartoon depicted a society matron saying to her fur-coated friends, "Let's go to the Trans-Lux and hiss Roosevelt." Mr. Obama's wackiest opponents insist he was born somewhere else. Mr. Roosevelt knew and Mr. Obama knows that perfect unity in a democracy is impossible. It's tough enough to round up 60 votes in the Senate.

Times, of course, have changed; 2013 is not 1937. Even so, Barack Obama is no liberal, at least not in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt, and those two inaugural speeches prove it.

James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.

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