In 1934 the unemployment rate in the United States was 21.7%, just two percent lower than it had been when Franklin Roosevelt entered the White House two years earlier. The Great Depression had its claws deep into the American economy, Roosevelt’s big business and conservative opponents were on the march and the president’s Congressional allies were bracing for the mid-term elections.
Yet, amid persistent charges in 1934 that FDR was taking the country toward socialism, fascism or dictatorship and trampling on the Constitution at every turn, Democrats won a stunning victory in that year’s mid-term elections increasing their numbers in both the House and the Senate. The Senate gains were particularly impressive with Democratic numbers going from 59 to 69 seats.
Historical parallels only go so far, admittedly, but there are some striking similarities between 1934 and 2010. But it is clear now that one thing is very different. The election outcome next Tuesday will be a near historic spanking of the party in power with Democrats almost certain to lose control of the House of Representatives and find their numbers sharply reduced in the Senate. Heading into the final weekend of the campaign, it is not impossible that the GOP will take the Senate, as well.
So, the obvious question: Why was Franklin Roosevelt able to pull off his 1934 political miracle – only the second time in history a party in power in the White House increased its numbers during a mid-term – with an economy still deeply in the ditch, and why will Barack Obama spend next Wednesday trying to explain what went wrong, while welcoming new House Speaker John Boehner to the White House?
I’ll offer a simple theory to a complex question – Obama, unlike FDR, has let his opponents define him and his policies and thereby he managed to lose control of the narrative arc of his presidency. It has been said that one can go from hero to zero just like that in politics and Obama has.
There will be plenty of “what ifs” and “what might have beens” after next week, but in the simple language of communication – and this applies to a school board election or a mid-term – if you are constantly playing defense, as Obama and Democrats have been, you almost always lose.
Folks on the right who will be celebrating next week will be quick to point out that the election signals a repudiation of Obama and Democratic policies and, to some degree, they’ll be correct, but there is a deeper issue for the president and Democrats. They haven’t mounted anything approaching an effective defense of what they have done and are trying to do. You can trace this failure – the wisdom of the policies notwithstanding – back to the summer of 2009 when Congressional town hall meetings were overrun by opponents of the health care legislation and, looking back, Obama and his supporters couldn’t begin to explain how the massive bill really helps most Americans. Instead they played defense, ceding the political narrative to the media’s fascination with the Tea Party, and, I would argue, have never developed a consistent message. They also went for months acting as though passing legislation in the hothouse environment of Washington, D.C. was a substitute for a coherent explanation of what they were trying to accomplish.
Contrast this failure, the months rolling by with no focused message and a fatally late start to engage, with FDR’s robust defense, packaged in terms of American ideals, that he began to mount early in 1934:
“A few timid people,” FDR said then, “who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing. Sometimes they will call it Fascism, sometimes Communism, sometimes Regimentation, sometimes Socialism. But in doing so, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and practical.
“I believe in practical explanations and practical policies. …that what we are doing today is a necessary fulfillment…of old and tested American ideals.”
Obama has been frantically on the stump the last few weeks, but Roosevelt was out on the hustings as early as August of 1934. In one speech he rejected the arguments of the Liberty League – an earlier day Tea Party – that contended that the New Deal was harming big business. “Sound economic improvement comes from the improved conditions of the whole population and not a small fraction thereof,” Roosevelt said.
In contrast to Barack Obama’s early start in his sprint for the White House and his determined, disciplined campaign, his PR skills have come up wanting over the last many months. He engaged his detractors too late and then ineffectively and only after he had lost any chance to stay on the offensive.
FDR’s great biographer, James MacGregor Burns, wrote of Roosevelt’s performance in 1934: “At a time when Americans wanted a man of action in the White House, he provided action or at least the appearance of action. At a time when they wanted confidence, he talked bravely, reassuringly about the future, whatever the mistakes, we were Looking Forward we were On Our Way, the title of two books he put out in 1933 and 1934. At a time when Americans wanted good cheer, he filled the White House with laughter.”
Burns said Roosevelt’s secret in 1934 was his “hold on the people,” a grasp that Obama had fleetingly, but has lost and will now struggle to retrieve.
During FDR’s pivotal second year in office, Burns has written, FDR “maintained his popularity through timely action, unfailing cheerfulness in public and private, and a masterly grasp of public opinion.”
In short, while the Great Depression still roared and two in five Americans were out of work, Roosevelt inspired confidence. “Businessmen, labor chiefs, bankers, newspaper editors, farm leaders left the White House cheered, impressed, relieved,” in Burns’ words.
Roosevelt succeeded in 1934 by giving a broad cross section of the American public a sure sense that he was one of them, looking out for them and fundamentally a champion of their cause. Such a feeling of public connection with the president helped overcome both FDR’s many detractors and the horrible economic circumstances – circumstance, like Obama, that he inherited – during the 1934 mid-term elections.
As much as this mid-term will be cast as a referendum on Barack Obama’s policies, it is also a sure sign that he has lost the confidence, the trust if you will, of a significant number of Americans. Once lost, those are qualities hard for any leader to re-establish and that helps explain why 2010 is going to be so very different than 1934.