FDR, Obama, and Unprecedented Challenges from the Right

If you have ever wondered whether the constant drumbeat from the professional detractors of Barack Obama on the left is something new in history, I urge you to read this fantastic historical perspective by Daily Kos diarist "puakev": Liberal Criticism of Franklin Roosevelt and The New Deal.  The parallels in the attacks from the left on Obama and those directed at FDR during his time are striking.

As I noticed the parallels in the critics, I could not help but think about what many Obama critics have essentially ignored in the context of evaluating the President's performance: the unique political challenges that Obama faces that FDR never had to: unprecedented Republican obstructionism, politics of race and violence and the right wing media empire. In other words, what we've been up against.

Republican Obstructionism

First and foremost among those challenges is unprecedented GOP obstructionism.  The Republicans in the Senate have filibustered literally everything - even legislation they themselves ultimately voted for.  They have therefore raised the threshold for passage to 3/5ths, or 60 votes for everything.  Six Republican co-sponsors of a bill creating a deficit commission filibustered their own bill when President Obama came out in support of it.  The political right today is devoid of substantive policy, and their primary goal has become to obstruct for the sake of gaining power.

Think I'm overstating this? Consider this: between 1927 and 1962, cloture was attempted eleven times (cloture, for those unfamiliar, is the process of shutting down a filibuster so a bill could come to a vote, which requires 60 votes). Each time, it failed. Eleven times in 36 years.  Eleven times in 18 Congresses.  That's it.

The number of filibusters have exploded especially since Democrats took control of Congress in 2007.  TPM provides a great chart to show us what has happened:

cloture-stats-chart2
There were 139 filibusters in the Senate in the 110th Congress, and in the current 111th Congress, there has already been 117 cloture motions filed.  Given some motions are voted on more than once in attempts to pass them again and again, the measure of the obstruction is far bigger than just the number of cloture motions filed.  The most filibusters Democrats have ever used was 58 times, during the 1999-2000 session, and that's when there was a Democratic president in office, filibustering legislation that the President would not sign anyway.

President Obama's signature achievement, health reform passed in two parts: the main bill receiving 60 votes in the Senate (just barely enough to fend off a GOP filibuster, when the Democratic caucus had 60 members, including two independents), and a reconciliation measure - which does not require 60 votes but can be used on budget matters only and only once a fiscal year - receiving 56 votes.  All of them Democratic votes.  The final legislation received zero Republican votes.

By contrast, social security, FDR's signature progressive domestic achievement, passed the Senate with 77 votes in a 96 member Senate, 16 of them Republican.

Speaking of filibusters, I should make a note that some will remind you that during FDR's time, the threshold to break a filibuster was a two-thirds, rather than a three-fifths vote. In a 96 member Senate, one would therefore need 64 votes to get passed the filibuster. So wasn't it harder to do then than now (even if it wasn't as abundantly practiced)?  Well, it depends on who was voting. Here are the crucial details:
The cloture rule originally required a supermajority of two-thirds of all senators "present and voting" to be considered filibuster-proof. For example, if all 100 Senators voted on a cloture motion, 67 of those votes would have to be for cloture for it to pass; however if some Senators were absent and only 80 Senators voted on a cloture motion, only 54 would have to vote in favor.
Therein lies the difference.  Back then, if Republicans wanted to filibuster, they'd have to all be actually present to do so, since otherwise the number of required votes would drop as there were less Senators present and voting.  Today, one Senator can filibuster, and the majority has to come up with 60 votes, even if only 60 Senators were present and voting.
In 1975, the Democratic Senate majority, having achieved a net gain of four seats in the 1974 Senate elections to a strength of 61 (with an additional Independent caucusing with them for a total of 62), reduced the necessary supermajority to three-fifths (60 out of 100). However, as a compromise to those who were against the revision, the new rule also changed the requirement for determining the number of votes needed for a cloture motion's passage from those Senators "present and voting" to those Senators "duly chosen and sworn". Thus, 60 votes for cloture would be necessary regardless of whether every Senator voted.
Politics of Race and Violence on the Right

FDR well deserves his legacy as as the liberal iconic US president, but he did not have to be President while black. The calls for his birth certificate - which by the way has been available on the web forever - is known to everyone. How fast have we forgotten this picture, forwarded by conservative activists to each other?

obama witch doctor image

Or this - America's favorite racist Glenn Beck calls Barack Obama racist:



I could go on, but you get the point.  This is the Republican southern strategy run a muck.   This president has been viciously attacked by the racist right because of his race.  No one, in 1934, went around depicting FDR as a foreign witch doctor who wants to kill grandma, and take  away from white people to give to those colored folk.

Then there's violent rhetoric from the GOP, and outright violence from their supporters.  I don't think the rabid right went around throwing bricks through Democratic offices after the passage of social security or any of the other New Deal programs.

The Right Wing Media's Addiction to Speed over Accuracy

To paraphrase the fictional Sydney Allen Wade in the movie The American President, FDR didn't have to be president on television.  FDR had his own battles - and people then were perhaps no more polite, calling him every name in the book because of his disability.  But in FDR's day, there was radio, but right talk radio did not pollute the airwaves.  There was a press and a media, but newspapers employed journalists who were more interested in facts than the "scoop."

And today?  Today we have a 24-hour news cycle that is obsessed with speed, damn the accuracy of any report.  We have videos by the likes of Andrew Breitbart destroying careers and organizations - videos that turn out to be bunk after a closer examination (i.e. when the damage is already done).  We have an entire "news" channel ready to air those videos ad infinitum without doing any independent checking on them.  We have blogs and the always-on TV news standing by to jump at anything and everything.  In our quest for information overload, journalism and facts have taken a back seat.

This is the information age.  Information travels at the speed of light.  So does misinformation.

Conclusion

I make this case not to belittle in any way the enormous contributions of FDR. The set of challenges faced by FDR were huge and unique.  He was an extraordinary and brilliant president.

But the set of challenges faced by President Obama, too, are unique in their own right.  To a degree, no president before him had ever faced these exact challenges, certainly not the trifecta of all three.  Republican obstructionism has broken all records, racists and professional race baiters take advantage of his skin color, and an entire media empire is literally after him. What is remarkable is not what has not yet been achieved.  What is astounding is even given these challenges, how much we have accomplished with this President's leadership.  We have made history together, and we should be proud.