Just on the eve of a presidential election year, an incumbent faced severe odds for gaining another term in the White House. A jobless rate remained stubborn, members of his own party doubted his resolve, the magic of the campaign that brought him to power just three years before had worn off. Critics began to complain that the deficit had been ballooned to no purpose. As Abraham Lincoln once lamented on another occasion, "the bottom" was "out of the tub."
The year was 1935 and the president was Franklin D. Roosevelt. In June, the Supreme Court struck down the cornerstone of his economic plan the National Recovery Administration. Moreover, Huey Long demanded a redistribution of income through his Share Our Wealth scheme. A radio commentator, Father Charles Coughlin berated his administration daily and the Dupont family helped to create the Liberty League. It was clear that the recovery would be painstakingly slow. FDR's prospects for re-election were considered no better than even. Herbert Hoover, his defeated predecessor, was even plotting a comeback.
Indeed Roosevelt's prospects looked no better than Barack Obama's appear today. In many respects, Obama looks better at this juncture than did FDR. Sinclair Lewis published a speculative novel, "It Can't Happen Here," that had Roosevelt dethroned by his own party. Yet by 1936, FDR was unbeatable and cruised to a record landslide taking 46 out of 48 states.
How he did it was that he made his opponents the problem, stressing how far his administration had gone to stabilize the situation. But Roosevelt also prepared a second act which proposed greater government actions and drew sharp contrast between him and his opponents. He proposed Social Security, restored the right of labor to organize, struck down when the court moved against the NRA and proposed an expansion of the minimum wage. Simply put, Roosevelt went on the offensive.
By the time Democrats met in Philadelphia in summer 1936, Roosevelt re-electrified a nation. Brushing aside the relics of the old Democratic Party, he prepared a campaign which was sharp and unabashedly progressive. In his acceptance speech, FDR set the tone "governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on a different scale." Then concluding "better the occasioned faults of a government living in the spirit of charity, than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference." At that hour, the modern Democratic Party was born.
Obama could steal a leaf from Roosevelt's 1936 campaign plan. Certainly it would have to be interpreted broadly. For instance in 1936 the South was in the bag for FDR - simply because he was a Democrat. Obama's prospects in that region are not so good. But Obama could both rebuild and renew the party with an agenda that stresses federal action. Moreover he could focus on the policies of his opponents.
Congress as defined by Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan sports a 13 percent approval rate, and 51 percent blame Bush for the recession. But Obama cannot depend on these alone, he needs to run a campaign based as Ronald Reagan put it on "bright colors and not pastels."
Charlotte could be the place on the rebirth of not only the Democratic Party but progressivism.
For the first three years, Obama has been trying to create a political utopia of bipartisanship. Obviously this has not worked. He has tried to seek consensus and has gained nothing for his trouble. Instead Obama should enunciate where he stands without hesitation. Treat the tea party as the Liberty League as a contrivance formed by Richard Armey to perform guerrilla theatre for Republicans. Deride the radio priest and those of the cable networks as false prophets for profit.
Show no quarter and expect none. It is time to break the ties with the desultory Clinton years and create a new vision for the Democratic Party.