Illustration by Chipp Kid
Illustration by Chipp Kid

From the early 20th century to the present day, the history of American liberalism has centered on strong presidents ramming “progressive” legislation through hesitant Congresses.

Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson initiated the trend in the early 1900s and laid the foundations for today’s activist presidency. They continue to merit study, but their emphasis on issues such as “trust-busting,” child labor and rudimentary agricultural subsidies seems dated to today’s liberals. The modern age of American liberalism began with Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, then peaked with Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. The major project of liberalism -- the establishment of a comprehensive social-democratic welfare state -- has reached a culmination with the tumultuous start of the Affordable Care Act under President Barack Obama.

The nationalization of access to medical care -- first floated by Teddy Roosevelt, given lip service by FDR, made a cornerstone of Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, advocated by John F. Kennedy and achieved for the elderly by Johnson -- appears, after a half-century, to have been realized on a universal basis by an improbable president who seemingly came out of nowhere.

American liberalism, long inspired by the national medical care systems of the U.K. and Western Europe, had been handed its Holy Grail by an unexpected paladin, who would be ranked with the giants of its folklore.

How does Obama compare with the two dominant liberal Democrats who preceded him?

Past Patronage

FDR had spent seven years as a highly effective assistant secretary of the Navy (in effect, the Navy’s chief civilian operating officer) when he was in his 30s. He received his party’s vice presidential nomination at the age of 38, and served three and a half years as governor of New York before being nominated for president. He was the original great communicator of the radio age and used the medium brilliantly to develop support and maintain what in those days passed for intimate contact with the larger public.

Roosevelt gained legitimacy and authority from his patrician voice and demeanor. A cooperative press rarely mentioned his physical handicap. To all these assets, he added a practical -- and at times unprincipled -- use of presidential patronage to win votes. (He once won over a reluctant senator by appointing as a U.S. marshal a man who had been convicted of homicide.)

His New Deal defined the goals and character of American liberalism -- the use of government to stabilize the economy and promote growth, to provide economic benefits and security for ordinary Americans, to make an alliance with organized labor, to advocate fairness for racial and ethnic minorities, and take an adversarial stance toward corporate business and finance. He always had a few visible Republicans (or former Republicans) in his administration.

Johnson, a child of the New Deal, was heir to Roosevelt’s legacy. Unlike FDR, he had no formal executive experience, but his years as Senate majority leader had left him superbly attuned to the nature of Congress and ways of persuading legislators to do his bidding. He moved what seemed to be a hopelessly stalled civil rights bill and other legislation by a combination of persuasion, genteel bribery and shrewd dealing with both his own partisans and the Republican minority.

To say that he engaged in a dialogue with Republican Senate leader Everett Dirksen is to understate the complex and, on the whole, cordial relationship they developed. His Great Society brought American liberalism to a new level of glory, but also exposed its flaws.

Obama’s strengths are primarily electoral rather than legislative. He brings to the office an impressive personality and strong oratorical powers, but seems to have little interest in negotiation.

Aloofness Indulged

During his first two years in office, he possessed the momentum of a national electoral victory, Democratic control of both houses of Congress and a Capitol Hill leadership that shared his dedication to a national health program. But the Affordable Care Act barely got through Congress, establishing the basis for what has become a bitter partisan division.

Given the way in which the House Republicans have allowed themselves to be pulled along by a dogmatic minority, the president is free to indulge his aloofness and will probably prevail when the government shutdown becomes intolerable. But just as the Republicans will learn that they can’t set the agenda for the country with only control of the House of Representatives, the president, as much a lame duck as a triumphant victor, is likely sooner or later to absorb the lesson that his own effectiveness will be increasingly limited without a channel to an opposition that has every incentive to oppose him.

(Alonzo L. Hamby is distinguished professor of history emeritus at Ohio University and in the final stages of preparing a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.)

To contact the writer of this article: Alonzo L. Hamby at hambya@ohio.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.