Leftist Obama Critics Should Study FDR

by Randy Shaw on December 27, 2008

First published on June 30, 2008.

Last week, some progressives expressed betrayal at Barack Obama’s support for a “compromised” FISA bill. While FISA’s telecom immunity provision is not a front burner issue for many, it is a hot button issue among the netroots, a community that has strongly backed Obama. Meanwhile, recent stories in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and other traditional media describe Obama as moving to “the center,” further alarming some on the left. This early progressive criticism of Obama comes amidst celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the New Deal, created by our best and most progressive president, Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt is often held up as a model for Obama, but some on the left apparently do not realize that FDR was a pragmatist who made deals with the proverbial devil–in his case, Southern segregationists–to get his progressive economic plans enacted. Those expecting Obama to follow a consistently left-wing agenda misunderstand both the man and the nature of U.S. politics.

Roosevelt the Pragmatist

My grandmother loved Franklin Delano Roosevelt and seemed to own books about every key member of his Administration. So I grew up a Roosevelt fan, and believe he not only was our nation’s last progressive president, but that he created a model for using a progressive grassroots base to move willing presidents to the left.

Roosevelt is an icon on the U.S. left, as again became clear as the 75th anniversary of the New Deal was celebrated this year. And while Republicans have successfully rolled back many of the gains of the 1960’s and 1970’s, they have consistently failed to reverse the key building blocks of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

But some facts about Roosevelt rarely discussed in history classes include his alliance with the racist Southern Democratic Senators and Congressmembers who often controlled key committees. Many of these politicians backed FDR’s economic populism, but would have vetoed such an agenda had Roosevelt demanded that the Constitution be enforced to protect the civil rights of African-Americans.

So while African-Americans in the South were denied voting rights, and subjected to overt discrimination and even lynchings, the Roosevelt Administration largely looked the other way. And while some on the black left publicly criticized Roosevelt’s perceived hypocrisy–such as enacting a federal minimum wage law that exempted domestic workers and other heavily African-American jobs–the black community in the North overwhelming voted for FDR in every election.

Nor did Roosevelt’s alliance with racist Democrats cause the largely white American Communist Party to attack the President. These activists understood the political realities, and, rather than shun Roosevelt for not aggressively promoting racial justice, worked hard to enact his progressive social and economic agenda. The left even stayed loyal to Roosevelt through his Executive Order sending Japanese-American citizens to internment camps, and his sending troops to overthrow a democratic government in Nicaragua.

Today’s Congressional Reality

Obama’s FISA stance appears designed to both avoid giving McCain a campaign issue and to reassure moderate Democrats that he understands their concerns and seeks to be their ally. It is the type of political calculation that Obama believes will facilitate passage of his more progressive agenda next year.

With tens of millions of voters in tough economic times, Obama likely did not see a fight against FISA as a priority. While many see the FISA bill as a complete capitulation to an unpopular President, opinions differ on the actual impact of granting telecom immunity.

But some progressive concern over both FISA and other Obama reflects the more pragmatic nature of the Democratic nominee.

Many activists believe that if progressives simply “stand firm,” that they can enact a left legislative agenda without making “deals” with more moderate politicians.

I recall hearing an interview in the late 1990’s where Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn was criticizing environmental groups for making deals. Asked what they should do instead, Cockburn bellowed, “stand firm”! How “standing firm” would get key legislation passed when the votes were lacking was never made clear, and Cockburn was not asked to expand upon his analysis.

This notion of avoid political compromise, so prevalent around comprehensive immigration reform legislation, proposed universal health care measures, and Congressional efforts to limit the Iraq War, is alien to the mindset that brought the still revered New Deal.

Just imagine what some of today’s activists would say about a minimum wage bill that excluded several categories of workers, typically in jobs held by racial minorities. They would insist that nobody should back such a bill, and that it was better to fail so we could try to pass a stronger bill in the future.

That’s what happened to some health care reform efforts, some of which progressives have opposed due to their not implementing “single payer.” Although there is no prospect of Congress voting to go directly from our current system to single-payer, and enacting any meaningful universal health care reform will involve “deals” with insurance companies and political moderates, many activists oppose anything short of an ideal yet politically impossible, single payer plan.

That’s why one can almost guarantee some left anger with President Obama next year over his health care plan. Obama, like Roosevelt, is a pragmatist who does not view the perfect as the enemy of the good.

Clinton vs. Roosevelt

Some, including Paul Krugman in today’s New York Times (whose criticism of the Clintons appears inconsistent with his strong backing of Hillary’s candidacy), have interpreted Obama’s election campaign move to the center as creeping “Clintonism.” But there is an important difference between Clinton, who was never a progressive and built his career attacking the left via the DLC, and Roosevelt, who consistently sought to achieve the most progressive legislation possible.

Barack Obama is in the Roosevelt camp. He is more of an incrementalist than FDR because the political space for more radical change has narrowed, but, unlike Clinton, he wants to build, not undermine, the progressive base.

Obama seeks to build a “working political majority” because he knows, unlike far too many activists, that creating change involves more than “standing firm” on principles. Rather, it means building the political base to support real change, and getting legislation through a Congress that progressives do not control.

The netroots outrage against Obama’s FISA stance sends an important message to the candidate that progressives will not be taken for granted. But let’s keep the Roosevelt model in mind before linking Obama’s pragmatism to a lack of commitment to progressive change.

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