LETTER FROM WASHINGTON
To Democrats Abroad
28 September 2014
Executive Director Emeritus
Ken Burns' just finished fourteen hour PBS documentary on the Roosevelts (Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor), taken with the looming struggle to replace Attorney General Eric Holder, reminds us that achieving Lincoln's vision of government "of the people, by the people and for the people" is an enduring battle now led by Obama. His appointment of the first black to be Attorney General followed the pushing of the envelope when TR appointed the first Jew to the cabinet and FDR appointed the first woman. There are those who have never forgiven them.
The Burns' film puts into perspective the shrill Republican cries of Presidential “overreach” and disregard for the Constitution. When compared to the activism of TR and FDR, Obama has been timid.
Common to the three Roosevelts and to Obama has been an overriding commitment to public service – to the common man. The Roosevelts came from America's high aristocracy but earned the hate of their peers for the betrayal of their class. Obama came from a mixed ethnic, disadvantaged, middle class, broken marriage and has earned the hate of those who cannot forgive his color, his background nor his persistence in trying to help the common woman – and man.
All had what should have been shattering life experiences: TR suddenly lost his beloved mother and wife the same day in the same house. Franklin had an unhappy, outsider youth dominated by his widowed mother who sabotaged his marriage to Eleanor. And, she had a miserable childhood, unloved by her mother and finally unloved, too, by her husband. All three Roosevelts both concealed their psychological turmoil and were driven by it.
Obama's broken family and his mixed religious and cultural background must be a powerful influence and one to which he refers. But, unlike any of the three Roosevelts who apparently never hinted to the public of uncertainty about anything, Obama has been candid (politically too candid) about the exercise of American power abroad.
And, while TR was an enthusiastic imperialist who embraced war and Franklin an anti-imperialist who did all in his power to bring the United States into the war against the Axis, Obama has been the anti-hawk. It has only been in the face of the barbaric explosion of the Islamic State that he has resolutely committed the United States to its destruction and begun that process by building a coalition, including 5 Arab nations, to carry out a war that he warns will be long.
TR claimed that the President had the authority to do anything that was not explicitly prohibited by the Constitution. And, in forcing the mine owners to settle with striking miners in 1902 and forcing the railroads to end rebates in 1903 as well as in dissolving some 44 monopolistic corporations, he simply overwhelmed his powerful entrenched right-wing opposition. When Franklin Roosevelt fought the Great Depression with the tidal wave of deficit spending in the WPA, the CCC, and the TVA, he destined Obama's 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to be a modest, yet effective, stimulus by comparison. And, then as now, the Republican Party fought them both tooth and nail.
TR set the mold for government as we know it today with his passionate conviction that the role of government was actively to serve the public to do all that it could to assure the right of all to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. His Square Deal set the agenda for his successors in conservation of natural resources, control of corporations and protection of consumers. Contrary to Reagan's and the Tea Party claim that government is the problem, the Roosevelts and Obama have shared the conviction that only government has the power to be a solution to the greatest public problems. And, TR set the standard for activism: enacting the Meat Inspection Act, the Pure Food and Drug Act, creating the Departments of Commerce and Labor, enacting the National Monuments Act and other environmental actions to create 18 national monuments, 150 national forests, 5 national parks including the Grand Canyon and 51 wildlife refuges.
Franklin Roosevelt rolled out not only the CCC, WPA and TVA but also the National Labor Relations Act protecting the right of labor to organize, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration which began the system of farm subsidies and regulation, as well as the SEC, the FDIC protecting bank deposits and Social Security.
The Roosevelt's historic expansion of government service to the entire nation opened the way for the end of legal race and sexual segregation, removal of racial barriers to voting, creation of Medicare and Medicaid. Obama has been faithful to these liberal and activist precedents. Yet even the Affordable Care Act, the end of sexuality discrimination in the armed forces, the enactment of the Dodd-Frank regulation of financial markets, reductions of auto and coal fired power emissions and the expansion of Federally protected natural reserves has been modest when compared with the tremendous changes led by TR and his Democratic successors.
All of this matters on the eve of our mid-term elections which could give the obstructionist Republicans control of Congress. Should that happen, Republicans would begin the process of turning back Obama's progress on reducing carbon emissions and raising working class income, defunding healthcare reform and family planning, blocking same sex marriage, crippling humane treatment of immigrants, under-cutting the Dodd-Frank Act, blocking appointments to both the Supreme Court and the lower Federal courts as well as that of a successor to Attorney General Holder. They would embrace, rather than fight, obstacles to voting.
The great achievements of our democracy since TR are at risk on November 4.