This time three years ago, two months after the 2008 election and a month before his inauguration, so many of us had high hopes for Barack Obama. Pundits proclaimed him a transformational president, a new Franklin Delano Roosevelt, coming to power in time of crisis to remake his country. No such luck. Today, even his acolytes are disappointed.
To some extent, this is unfair. Barack Obama has had to deal with calamities left him by his predecessors. Considering the sclerotic nature of American politics and the intransigence of his opposition he has done reasonably well. Against the odds, he has passed a major if not perfect health care reform act and even more important, saved the banking system from collapse, so avoiding a replay of the Great Depression.
But Roosevelt also faced a harsh economic environment and his achievements far outstrip Obama’s. What is the difference? It is hard to remember now, but before 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was seen as a lightweight, a rich boy, a man of “second-rate intelligence,” who owed his prominence mostly to his name. In many ways, FDR was the George W Bush of the 1920s. Barack Obama, a self-made man, raised by a single mother, the editor of the Harvard Law Review, is certainly smarter, a deeper thinker than the great FDR. So why has he not taken advantage of the crisis to remake America as did Roosevelt? Sadly, I think the answer has to do with class.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, descendent of Hudson Valley Dutch patroons, was as aristocratic as you can be in America. He was born into the ruling class, supped at their tables as a boy, drank with them at Harvard finishing clubs, knew them intimately and so was not intimidated by them. This allowed him to deal sternly and confidently with those he called “the malefactors of great wealth.”
Perhaps Barack Obama, raised by a peripatetic single mother who struggled to stay in the middle class, remains impressed, as most of us are, with those much richer than ourselves. To become a member of the ruling class, a black man in America must be accommodating, understanding, unthreatening. That is a fine strategy if one wants to become editor of the Harvard Law Review…