Obama is no FDR

Circumstances and GOP gainsaying have throttled the president's ambitions

August 10, 2010|By Jules Witcover

Even before taking office nearly 17 months ago, President Barack Obama was being touted by hopeful Democrats as the next Franklin D. Roosevelt — he of the fabled "first hundred days" and the New Deal that was credited, with some dispute, with pulling the country out of the Great Depression.

Mr. Obama's own spurt of action and remedial legislation upon taking office was not quite so swift. But in his second year, by pushing and shoving, by coaxing members of his own party in Congress, he did achieve historic health insurance reform.

He has continued with a list of other notable accomplishments to make the case, also amid dispute, that he is slowly but surely pulling the country out of what's now widely being called the Great Recession.

But because of the grinding pace of recovery, accompanied by nagging joblessness that has inhibited public optimism about progress on Main Street, the early comparisons with FDR have waned — with the lively assistance of the Republican leadership in Congress, which has been all too ready to answer no to Mr. Obama's every overture.

The Democratic president has made various attempts to deal with the unemployment rate, currently stalled at 9.5 percent (or much higher if workers who have stopped looking are included). Legislation to help localities and states to keep teachers and first responders on their payrolls is an example, as is the push for extended jobless benefits.

But with the Republicans intensifying warnings of federal deficit catastrophe — something they seemed not to worry about while running through the Bill Clinton surplus and beyond during their late administration — Mr. Obama's inclinations to emulate FDR are being throttled.

If ever there was a time for a massive federal job-creation program akin to those of the early New Deal, this is it. Indeed, projects such as road building, parks improvement and a range of other public works are going forward under the Obama stimulus package, but somehow they're escaping wide public awareness.

Mr. Obama regularly mentions them now that he is aggressively on the campaign trail, looking to the November congressional and gubernatorial elections. And Vice President Joe Biden, the man in charge of overseeing the implementation of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, has been trumpeting them in his sometimes overboard fashion.

But for all of Mr. Obama's references to how the nation was driven "into the ditch" by the Republicans in the Bush years, and how they have stood aside while the Democrats have struggled to push it out, the idea that everything possible is being done to put America back to work has not begun to come through.

It's hard for unemployed workers, who on average have been jobless for a year or more despite their skills, to understand the sudden concern over the mounting federal deficit. They wonder why it should be taking precedence over Uncle Sam putting the jobless to work on a grander scale, especially with so much decaying infrastructure at home needing attention.

Particularly grating is how billions of taxpayer dollars continue to pour into propping up governments in Iraq and Afghanistan amid endless political bickering there and tales of widespread corruption to boot. For all the Obama administration's denials that it is trapped into nation building in both places, that's what it looks like to many on Main Street America.

If there weren't midterm elections on the calendar less than three months from now, Mr. Obama could afford politically to wait for the results of his economic recovery to bear fruit in terms of the rising employment he insists will materialize if only voters can be patient.

But in an environment where many corporations that were given a government hand are accumulating major profits but not hiring, choosing to squeeze more productivity out of fewer workers, not only impatience but public anger is inevitable.

Inevitably, too, these sentiments are being focused not on tight-fisted corporate management but on the man who sits behind the Oval Office desk where, as Harry Truman so accurately said, the buck always stops.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is juleswitcover@earthlink.net.

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