As surprising as it might seem to die-hard conservatives, President Barack Obama is frequently regarded as a "sellout" by progressives, liberals and leftists. Indeed, a recent CNN poll revealed that Obama's fall to 45 percent approval was largely due to disaffected liberals impatient with his accommodation of right-wing demands to cut the budget. A writer in a Washington Post column declared that Obama was "no FDR" and offered a "raw" rather than a "new" deal.
However, Obama cannot so easily be called a sellout because he never bought into liberal orthodoxy in the first place. As for comparing him to Franklin Roosevelt, this fails to take into account the differences between the 1930s and the present. First the depression of that era was deeper by a considerable degree and agriculture played a far greater role in the economy. As well, the federal debt, even after Herbert Hoover pumped a billion into the economy, was far less a percentage of GNP. Obama inherited a huge deficit from George W. Bush and had little leeway to maneuver.
And the current critics overrate FDR's role as a social reformer. One of his first acts, the Economy Act slashed federal salaries and pensions. His agricultural and business policies benefited large farmers and big industry not small concerns and ignored sharecroppers and small plot agriculture. Indeed the largest early outlay of funds went to a British firm which harvested trees in Mississippi. Roosevelt had good reason to go in this direction, but Robin Hood he was not. By 1935, in the same period, the New Deal was being denounced by some progressives using the same terms leveled against Obama.
But it is foolish to compare an era when the federal budget represented at best a modest percentage of the economy. However, even when everything is factored in, Obama never promised what he had to do in response to the financial collapse of September 2008. He endorsed the bailout initiated by the Bush administration and made it essentially the model for his own admittedly more ambitious program. Even the health care reform was built on the prescription drug initiatives of his predecessor.
Perhaps the fairest comparison for Obama is to Harry Truman's "Fair Deal." Launched at a time of prosperity it had few takers in Congress. Yet it created the foundation for the Great Society both in the realm of civil rights and Medicare. Given the time and hugely different circumstances, Obama has contributed a great amount. But to look at it as a New Deal gone wrong is both false and out of time. Indeed the tea party revolt of 2010 has its roots when a great many GOP representatives opposed the Paulson plan of the Bush administration on the grounds that it ballooned the deficit.
Obama's administration reflects mainstream Democratic ideas as advanced by Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and indeed even Lyndon Johnson in his last two years. Conditions have changed as economic improvements have increased the gap between educated and uneducated workers. Jobs have been lost sometimes permanently and compensation has been anything but evenly distributed. During the great boom of the 1960s where growth rates often exceeded 7 percent per year from 1964-1969, income disparity increased. For more than a generation, Democrats, despite the rhetoric, have been on the whole pro-business depending on the sector being examined. High tech and large manufacturing have been favored. Wall Street, even among Democrats, has trumped Main Street.
So for the moment, Obama is not simply posturing when he offers deep cuts in exchange for modest revenues. Jimmy Carter had the Federal Reserve boldly raise interest rates to abate inflation in 1980. He cost himself re-election and ushered in Ronald Reagan. But Democrats, particularly of the progressive stripe, would be well to reflect on the impact of Carter's defeat. With Reagan came a conservative turn, something that liberals would do well to reflect upon. But Obama should not be held to standards not of his own making or from an America long past.
(Editor's Note: Turner is a professor of history at Davis & Elkins College.)