It is 1937 all over again.
In his second inaugural address yesterday, Barack Obama channeled the style, structure and substance of Franklin Roosevelt’s second inaugural with all but unprecedented fidelity.
Each president employed a comparable rhetorical device to identify himself with his audience and with the programs of his first term. For FDR it was “We of the Republic” at the start one paragraph after another; for Mr. Obama, it was “We the People.”
Each described a dichotomy in society and identified his agenda not just as helping those in need but against the supposedly small-in-number well off. As Roosevelt 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.” Mr. Obama echoed, “For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it….”
Most importantly, the central theme of the two speeches was identical. Each was an argument for big, all-but-unlimited government. Larger government powers, each said, were not just an emergency measure for responding to a current economic crisis, but a permanent adjustment to enduring national changes.
In 1937, FDR argued:
“We of the Republic sensed the truth that democratic government has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable…. We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to be solved by the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster.”
Yesterday, President Obama said:
“For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people. “
Of course, some particulars were different. It is hard to imagine FDR thinking for a moment about anything resembling gay rights or climate change. And Roosevelt’s address was entirely devoted to domestic concerns, while Mr. Obama’s touched on Iraq and Afghanistan, suggesting a retreat from world engagement in his second term. FDR moved the U.S. away from isolationism his second four years in office. But excepting those sections, the Obama address was clearly intended as a kind of updating of Mr. Roosevelt.
This shouldn’t come to anyone as a surprise. Obama as the new Roosevelt has been an administration theme from day one. And as Charles Kesler, editor of the Claremont Review of Books, argues in I am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism (http://tinyurl.com/b9bxbdk), published weeks before the election, “Obama has a century of modern American liberalism to draw on, and in a strange way his administration has recapitulated that history,” not to say its rhetoric.
But despite the White House crowd’s ambitions for their man, their situation is very different than FDR’s. When Roosevelt delivered his address, he was coming off the most lopsided presidential victory in history to that time. And the nation – though still in the Great Depression – enjoyed a government that was financially strong. His party’s numbers in the House and Senate were overwhelming. The Republican Party was, effectively, demolished in the 1936 elections, something Democratic strategists are said to be hoping to do to the GOP again in 2016.
In contrast, today Mr. Obama faces a strongly placed opposition that controls one of the two houses of Congress, 31 statehouses and enough seats in the Senate to require lockstep discipline among Senate Democrats if it is not to be a force, something that (considering which Democrats are up for reelection in 2016) on a number of issues looks like an open question. Meanwhile, the nation is in increasingly desperate financial straits that will require the president to work with the other side of the Congressional aisle, if he is to have a successful second term.
And nothing in the speech – not one word – reached out to the opposition party. A lecture on common purpose? Yes, he offered that. But a condescending lecture is not a hand of respect. He acted toward the GOP in words the way Mrs. Obama acted toward House Speaker John Boehner with her nose at the luncheon following the ceremonies.
So, for what it is worth, here is my assessment of yesterday’s big speech: right remarks for this president and his most ardent supporters; wrong remarks for the times, the political circumstance and the national welfare.