America’s next great president: Why Obama’s departure paves the way for the next FDR

tags: Barack Obama, Lyndon B. Johnson, Franklin D. Roosevelt



Michael Lind is the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States and co-founder of the New America Foundation.

Why can’t Barack Obama be more like Lyndon Johnson? The fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, commemorated by living presidents at the LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin, Texas, last week, has renewed interest in comparisons between the two presidents. Critics of Obama complain that he might have been a more effective president had he been less aloof and more willing to bewitch, bully and bribe members of Congress as Johnson did. Defenders of Obama compare the Affordable Care Act to Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid, and point out that Obama after 2010 had to face a divided Congress, unlike Johnson, with his Democratic supermajorities.

The discussion is superficial, reflecting a focus on personalities and short-term electoral considerations. It’s worth viewing the differences between Johnson and Obama in a broader historical context….

The New Deal and similar reform movements in other mid-twentieth-century democracies effected a massive redistribution of income within large industrial corporations, from managers and shareholders to workers in the same firm, who were paid higher wages thanks both to unions and wages-and-hours regulations. But today’s rich and today’s working poor are seldom in the same company — or even in the same industry. Unlike the Big Three auto companies at the height of the New Deal/Great Society era, Wall Street financial institutions and Silicon Valley corporations make enormous profits while employing relatively few people. Meanwhile, many of the firms that employ growing numbers of Americans — say, nursing homes — don’t make big profits, even if the profits they do make could be shared more equitably. A higher minimum wage can help. But if most Americans in the service sector are to share the gains from productivity growth, channels of redistribution other than wages will be necessary, such as subsidies for the private purchase of important goods and services or alternately their public provision.

The political order is also radically different than it was in the age of Roosevelt and Johnson. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, American politics was still organized as it had been since Martin Van Buren and others developed the political party system in the 1830s. The Democrats and Republicans were national federations of state and local political machines, in which millions of ordinary Americans took part not only as voters but also as party officials and volunteers. The political machines were supplemented by other organizations in which rural and working-class Americans had influence, like the Grange, veterans’ clubs and ethnic clubs in immigrant-rich cities.

Today the parties are mostly free-floating labels that are up for grabs by gangs of plutocrats, rather than mass-membership organizations. Most candidates are either self-financed or backed by partisan or ideological organizations. Funded by the rich, these groups could not be further from the dues-paying, membership-based parties of the era of Roosevelt and Johnson. Unless they live in swing districts, most Americans are unlikely ever to be visited by a partisan canvasser, or to have any personal contact of any kind with the Democratic or Republican parties.

This, then, is the situation in all of the Western democracies in the early twenty-first century: a workforce increasingly dominated by relatively poorly-paid workers in the service sector, with a large college-credentialed minority, and a political system dominated by big donations rather than widespread membership. Put this in the context of the ongoing third industrial revolution based on IT and the catastrophic failure of the most recent attempt to create a global economy, and the challenge of achieving something like the results of the New Deal and Great Society by different means in new conditions becomes even more complex.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, following Barack Obama’s departure from office, there will still be an opening for a twenty-first century version of FDR or LBJ. Any candidates?



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