Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A 'Rendezvous With Destiny'

In the weeks before Barack Obama took the oath of office 2½ years ago, lots of folks were already comparing him to Lincoln and FDR.

Lincoln, as the Great Emancipator, was an obvious one, I guess, considering that Obama was the first black president. Obama's elevation to the presidency could be seen — and, in fact, was seen by some — as the fruition of Lincoln's vision of a post–racial America.

But I always felt the comparison to Roosevelt was more appropriate because of the circumstances and the expectations — OK, maybe I was influenced by the fact that I once wrote a research paper in graduate school on the 1932 presidential election, in which FDR first won the presidency (denying Herbert Hoover a second term by a substantial margin).

I still say the circumstances — which most people readily acknowledged were the worst since Roosevelt's time — had a lot to do with that. It's been nearly 80 years since Roosevelt was elected president, and the economic disaster that contributed much to Obama's election clearly wasn't as severe as the one facing FDR — but it was the worst this country has faced in three–quarters of a century, and that is important to remember.

In 2008, America already was, for all intents and purposes, a post–racial society. Racism still existed, but not on an officially sanctioned level, as it did when schools and public restrooms and businesses of all kinds were segregated.

And organized racism (i.e., the Ku Klux Klan) was not practiced at the level it once was, thanks to laws that were not only enacted but actively enforced.

Discrimination was outlawed, which, it seems to me, is the kind of thing that can only be taken so far as long as it is pursued as vigorously as other crimes.

If, for example, an employer is predisposed not to hire people who belong to a certain race — or, for that matter, happen to be female or over a certain age — it probably would be the kind of thing that would be hard to prove in court without some sort of paper trail. If one exists, it is government's responsibility to prosecute.

I'm sure discrimination still happens, but it's more covert. Folks who discriminate make more of an effort to cover their tracks. Most don't say or do incriminating things indiscriminately.

The election of Obama had no discernible impact on unsanctioned discrimination, but that wasn't really what the campaign was about. Sure, many folks were motivated by a desire to show the world that America had transcended racism, but I think a lot of it had to do with the economy.

It was what Americans have always done.

The bad economy affected everyone — and, as a student of history, I can tell you that, when times are bad, voters need very little encouragement to turn to the party that is out of power.

In 2008, the Republicans held the presidency. There was no incumbent to punish, as there had been in 1932, but the public could hold his party accountable — and it did. The voters gave the Democrats the White House and padded their majorities in the House and Senate.

I believed then — and I believe now — that the Democratic nominee was virtually assured of victory after the economy imploded under a Republican president. If Hillary Clinton had been the nominee, she would have won. If John Edwards had been the nominee, he would have won (and, considering the things that have emerged about him, we might well have faced other issues as a result).

As I say, this is how it has always been in America. When the economy is bad, the voters turn against the party in the White House. Doesn't matter who is in charge in Congress — which is never popular, anyway. Economic policy is believed to be set by the president.

Sure, we've had other economic downturns in the last three–quarters of a century — some modest and short lived, some not so modest and longer lived — but presidents who survived and were rewarded with additional time were the ones who demonstrated leadership and confidence.

They were the ones who met their "rendezvous with destiny," as FDR put it in his acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic National Convention. Roosevelt was wrapping up his first term in the White House and was asking for four more years.

The unemployment rate in 1936 was much worse than it is today — but it was a clear improvement over the conditions that prevailed when Roosevelt was first elected. People responded to that fact — as well as the fact that Roosevelt had shown an eagerness to try new things when other approaches weren't getting the desired effect.

It's called leadership. It is the pioneering spirit that has always been celebrated in American history.

In the aftermath of the congressional resolution of the debt ceiling crisis, one got the sense from Obama that we had dodged a bullet, not that an important step had been taken toward the fulfillment of his vision of economic recovery and progress.

He hasn't shown the same kind of eagerness to try new things when the old ones did not succeed. Instead, he has been like George W. Bush, unable (or unwilling) to admit to any mistakes and, consequently, learn from them.

He must have made some mistakes. Under Obama's watch, unemployment has never been below where it was on the day he was sworn in. in 2½ years, voters expect to see some improvement.

Yet, on this Friday, roughly 15 months before Obama must face the voters again, forecasters believe the unemployment rate will remain at 9.2%.

In the context of the times, that would have been considered amazing when FDR sought a second term — and might have led to a 50–state landslide. As it was, Roosevelt carried all but two states and received more than 60% of the vote.

But, in 2011, to many voters, it represents a retreat if not outright surrender. Even the most generous voters seem hard pressed to defend these numbers, which directly threaten everything else.

It's why the stock markets have been jittery. It's why creditors have put the United States on a form of economic probation, even though an agreement was reached on the debt ceiling.

What has Obama — who likes to talk about "teachable moments" — learned from his mistakes? Is he meeting his rendezvous with destiny?

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