My brother recently e-mailed me to express his disappointment with President Obama, whom he and 67 million other hopeful Americans voted for in 2008. Two years later, he isn't the only one disillusioned. "I thought we were getting FDR," he wrote. "We did," I responded. "Just not the one we thought we were getting."
The 67 million of us who voted for Obama two years ago did so for a variety of different reasons. Some cast their vote because he is a black man, some because of his eloquence, some because he opposed the Iraq War, some because of his policies benefitted the poor and middle classes, and some simply because he seemed the antithesis of George W. Bush.
Within weeks of Mr. Obama's election, Time magazine had imposed his image onto one of Franklin D. Roosevelt sitting in the back of his car, iconic cigarette holder jutting out from his grinning lips. The magazine's headline declared the arrival of "The New, New Deal," referring primarily to the economic crisis that Obama inherited and was now responsible for ending.
A product of nostalgia, not reality
The FDR that Time alluded to is the one that most of us know – the charming man who repaired the US economy, conquered the fascists, defended the rights of minorities, and had the support of just about everyone in the United States. The problem is, that FDR is the product of nostalgia. In reality (as is often the case with reality), things were a whole lot more complicated.
The New Deal didn't restore the economy
Take the first claim, for instance, regarding Roosevelt's economic recovery. After inheriting his own economic crisis, FDR instituted the New Deal, rescuing the American economy from total collapse. Roosevelt, however, did not bring the US economy back to full health. In 1941, the year America declared war against Japan, the US unemployment rate stood at 9.9 percent. That’s right, even after the Works Progress Association, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Lend-Lease Act put Americans back to work, unemployment was higher than it is right now.
In 1941, even after the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Lend-Lease Act put Americans back to work, unemployment stood at 9.9 percent – higher than it is now. FDR's New Deal didn't restore the economy; World War II did.
How FDR really vanquished the fascists
Take the second claim, that FDR vanquished the fascists – the geopolitical Enemy No. 1 of their time. Well, yes, he did. However, he only succeeded in doing this by striking a deal with Joseph Stalin – a murderous dictator in his own right – and allowing the Soviet Union to absorb atrocious losses on the eastern front. By the war’s end, the United States had suffered approximately 600,000 casualties, overwhelmingly military. The Soviet Union? Over 25 million, more than half of them civilian.
As great as the Greatest Generation is, the US achieved victory in World War II in good part because FDR chose to regard the USSR as an ally. In doing so, he effectively eliminated one global threat – but left us with decades of cold war.
An uneven record on minority rights
The third claim is equally problematic. Roosevelt indeed protected minority rights, issuing Executive Order 8802 (also known as the Fair Employment Act), which barred discrimination in defense industries and federal bureaus. Yet during his time in office Roosevelt refused to advance an antilynching law for fear of alienating Southern Democrats, even though some states, such as Virginia, had already passed such laws.
Moreover, in 1942 Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, imprisoning Japanese-Americans in internment camps, an act for which President Ronald Reagan formally apologized on behalf of the US government in 1988.
Criticism and a coup
The final claim, however, that Roosevelt had virtually unwavering support throughout his time in the Oval Office, is simply indefensible.
As early as 1933, for instance, a scheme that has become known as the "Business Plot" was hatched among ultrawealthy Americans to overthrow Roosevelt in a coup.
But if that's a bit too conspiratorial for your taste, consider a 1934 Chicago Tribune political cartoon that depicts the "Young Pinkies from Columbia and Harvard" whom Roosevelt entrusted to enact the New Deal. "Spend! Spend!" declares a Trotskyesque character. "Spend under the Guise of Recovery – Bust the Government – Blame the Capitalists for the Failure – Junk the Constitution and Declare A Dictatorship." Sound familiar?
So, did we get FDR when we voted for Obama? I think maybe we did. It's just that we didn't get the sanitized, romanticized, Hollywood version.
We got the real thing.