The policy the president sets in coming weeks, and especially the rhetoric of his public addresses in this early period, can give us the answer. Signs so far are that Franklin Delano Roosevelt will be Obama’s model, which portends negative news in the economy but perhaps good news for the Democratic Party.
President Bill Clinton started his second term signaling ideological and political compromise. In his inaugural address, Clinton spoke often of “we,” and twinned Democratic goals with the one that Republicans hold dearest: smaller government. Clinton talked of “a government that is smaller, lives within its means, and does more with less.”
He brought up an idea that had long been as precious to Democrats as small government is to Republicans: welfare. But in speaking of welfare he emphasized shrinking it. “Government is not the problem, and government is not the solution,” Clinton said. A scholar of presidential rhetoric, Elvin Lim of Wesleyan University, notes that Clinton’s compromises showed up in his syntax: When the Republicans found a phrase, the Democrats did, too.
More balancing was evident in Clinton’s State of the Union address in 1997, when he used the word “bipartisan” six times, which was six times more than it appeared in his first State of the Union, in 1993. In 1997, he uttered the word “budget,” an old Republican fave, 17 times, compared with only seven times in his 1993 State of the Union.
Clinton signaled that he was scaling back on his first term’s ambitious health-care plan when he told the 104th Congress that his budget, not a comprehensive program, was the policy answer for health care, saying of uninsured children that his current budget would “extend health care to up to 5 million of those children.”
Roosevelt didn’t balance after his re-election in 1936. He attacked. Roosevelt’s second inaugural address, like Clinton’s, included a powerful “we,” but it wasn’t a uniting “we” or “us.” His listeners were either with us or against us. Roosevelt took a dig at opponents’ projects: “Evil things formerly accepted will not be so easily condoned.” Roosevelt assailed budget hawks by suggesting their thrift betrayed poor character: “Hard-headedness will not so easily excuse hard-heartedness.” He repeatedly warned of the cost of disagreeing: “We are beginning to abandon our tolerance.”
Where Clinton rejected government as the solution, Roosevelt embraced it: “Repeated attempts at their solution without the aid of government had left us baffled and bewildered.” Finally, FDR warned of even greater projects to come: “We are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a better world.”
Roosevelt’s annual message to Congress, which happened to fall before his 1937 inaugural, spoke of cooperation, yet then defined cooperation as action by Congress. Because Democrats ruled in both houses at that time, cooperation meant government the Democrats’ way.
Early as we are in the new administration, we can see that Obama looks more like Roosevelt than like Clinton. In the debate over the debt ceiling, the president is challenging Republicans to a fight, not joining them. While we haven’t heard his State of the Union address yet, in his inaugural, Obama’s “we” resembled Roosevelt’s, suggesting you were either with him or against him.
Like Roosevelt’s, too, Obama’s rhetoric featured a bit of mockery. He aped, or at least challenged, conservatives by throwing their constitutional phraseology back at them: “We, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” he said.
Like Roosevelt, Obama went after his opponents, when he said entitlements “do not make us a nation of takers.” That was a clear reference to House Budget Committee leader Paul Ryan’s statement that America is divided between takers and makers.
“Here Obama is coming out as a liberal, he is not being politically correct,” Lim of Wesleyan says. The 44th president, like the 32nd, put forward big ambitious goals: “collective action” on gay rights and climate change.
Finally, Obama vehemently defended spending, suggesting that cuts represent a betrayal of a great social contract. Ominously, Obama put Medicaid and Medicare in a class with Social Security, meaning they were all holy, speaking of “the commitments we make to each other, through Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.”
Economically, a second-term president who resembles FDR more than WJC portends bad news. Clinton’s decision to take the moderate course was followed by growth. Indeed, the 42nd president came out No. 1 in an Economist magazine ranking of 10 second-term presidents’ economic performance. Roosevelt, by contrast, came out sixth. Some of us think he ranks even lower. The famous “depression within a depression” took place in his second term.
Politically, however, Obama’s bold posture may benefit both him and his party, Lim says. Lim suggests that Clinton retreated to caution because he lived in the era of Ronald Reagan. Roosevelt created his own era, which continued under Harry Truman. Obama, too, Lim suggests, is declaring a new era: “The age of Obama has descended on us.”
(Amity Shlaes, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the director of the Four Percent Growth Project at the Bush Institute and the author of the forthcoming “Coolidge.” The opinions expressed are her own.)
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