Governing America – F D Roosevelt and Richard Nixon

Stone the crows! Government is the goodie in the US.

The Crows found themselves in Hyde Park the other day, no not the one across the road from DJs, the one on the Hudson River in upstate New York. (In the immortal words of Chuck Jones, they knew they should have turned left at Albuquerque).

They were having a squiz at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt library and presidential home, which is very nice.[i] Especially if you think FDR saved the country from the Great Depression – which the film the National Park Service that runs the joint run shows says he did.

That night on Manhattan, they went and saw Douglas McGrath’s new play about Richard Nixon’s 1952 Checkers Speech, and his decision to run in 1968 after eight years in the wilderness. [ii]

It was less a play than a drama-documentary and it was a little disconcerting to see Anthony Lapaglia, whom the Crows best remember as a NSW police detective in Lantana, doing a great job playing Nixon (he even had the RMN crinkly hair). It was an entertaining 100 minutes and fair to the president, which upset the audience – people bristled a couple of times when Nixon was presented as not completely crooked – well, not all the time.

But the contrast between the two political visions was stark.

Granted Hyde Park is a shrine and as such not the place for a Machiavellian menu of FDR’s dirty deals, or even a critical analysis of whether the New Deal accomplished much more than the spending of a bucket of money that delayed the US recovery from the great crunch.[iii] But, throughout the library exhibit and particularly in the visitor centre film, the message is explicit – FDR used the power of the state to protect ordinary Americans from everything from drought and dust storm to failed banks and cruel creditors.

In contrast, Checkers is a play about the practice of politics. Nixon’s great political talent is dismissed as the ranting of a tea party-esque outsider, motivated by a lifelong grievance against the bipartisan political elite which did not want him in its club.[iv] Certainly, McGrath makes great play with Nixon’s understandable sense of being an outsider, in the way he portrays the GOP establishment’s distaste for him and the way Dwight Eisenhower showed no loyalty to his running mate in 1952.

Nixon’s sense of being an outsider is presented as the motivation for his southern strategy, his insight that the old confederacy was ripe for Republican picking, that the old racist Democratic Party that held the south solid for a century lost power once Lyndon Johnson’s administration passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964[v]. While he is unlikely to admit it, the way Mitt Romney carried  11 of the 13 southern states with the votes of working class whites echoes the background that helped Nixon refashion the GOP as a populist party of social conservatives – those voters who do not benefit or, more accurately, assume they do not benefit from the social welfare system LBJ built.[vi]

There are no prizes for guessing which vision of politics the American people are buying just now. President Obama did not run on a public works platform as a way of saving people from poverty. But he did campaign on the twenty-first century equivalent – health, welfare and education spending. And, like FDR in 1932, he did not even have to sell his case all that hard, what with the way his opponent did it for him. As one of the guides at the FDR shrine told the Crows, Mitt Romney lost the election when his remark that half the American people are basically bludgers was leaked. [vii]

Nor is it surprising that President Obama contrasted Mitt Romney with Eisenhower, a Republican president happy to spend vast amounts of money on public works, notably to create the interstate highway system.[viii]

If there was ever a case that nobody ever won an election underestimating the electorate this was it. There is a solid case that President Obama did not deserve a second term, the economy is barely breathing and he shows no sign of having a clue what to do. His attempt to defuse the public debt bomb last year was a disaster.

As Bob Woodward shows, Barack Obama lacked the policy smarts and political heft to force the Republicans to do one essential thing last year – increase taxes. [ix] And he lacked the standing with his own side to force Congressional Democrats to do the other – cut health and welfare outlays. He has the authority now, but still seems short of ideas. [x]

Despite this, he romped in. Sure the popular vote was close-ish, 62.6 million to 59.01.[xi]But the Democrats held the Senate and picked up seats in the House – and this at a poll where very rich Republican political action committees outspent the Democrats in the hope of taking the trifecta. (Overall both sides spent a trillion dollars!)


The Republicans failed because the American people are in no mood for rugged individualism; they want help and they expect it from the state. The Democrat Party establishment, and their pals in the unions, are making it plain that they want no program cuts. As the Wall Street Journalunderstated it last Wednesday, the President is “under pressure

to take a hard line from activist groups,” – which means public sector unions who understand the significance of Obama’s victory. [xiii]

There is only one problem with the FDR solution that Barack Obama has adopted, presenting himself as a national leader working for the good of all – where Nixon in Checkers and by implication all Republicans are just politicians.

When Roosevelt created the New Deal, he only had to bail out the banks and create a welfare system. The US was not carrying the cost of keeping the peace all over the world for 60 years, as it does now. Barack Obama starts with much more debt and far fewer options.

It’s a good thing he does not have to include re-election plans in what he does next – to get the US budget within light years of sustainability is going to require him to upset a small group of people with tax rises and a large one with benefit cuts. As Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, authors of last year’s bipartisan plan on debt reduction, warned on Thursday, big cuts in health, welfare and defence are as essential as tax hikes to cut the unsustainable trillion dollar deficits Washington regularly runs.[xiv]

Perhaps the most important legacy FDR left was the two-term limit. The Crows wonder why Nixon, or anybody, would ever want to be president for even that long.


[i] recovered on November 14

[ii] recovered on November 14

[iii] Harold L Cole and Lee E Ohanian, “How government prolonged the depression,”  Wall Street Journal, February 2 2009

[iv] Tom Wicker, “Character above all: Richard Nixon,”  PBS, nd @, recovered on November 14

[v] Robert A Caro, The Passage of Power: the years of Lyndon Johnson, (2012)

[vi] Hastings Wyman, “Democrats do well in Dixie,” Southern Political Report, November 7 @ recovered on November 14

[vii] Mother Jones video, “Mitt Romney on Obama voters,” Youtube September 17 @ recovered on November 14

[viii] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the president on the economy in Osawatomie, Kansas,” December 6 2011, @ recovered on November 16

[ix] Bob Woodward, The Price of politics (2012)

[x] Associated Press, “Obama on tricky path in fiscal cliff negotiations,” USA Today, November 16

[xi] Dave Leip, “Atlas of US presidential elections,” @ recovered on November 14

[xii] Danny Yadron, Patrick O’Connor and Alexandra Berzon, “Super PACs’ appeal appears limited,” Wall Street Journal, November 7

[xiii] Janet Hook and Carol E Lee, “Obama sets steep tax target,” Wall Street Journal November 14

[xiv] John McCrank, “Simpson, Bowles call for compromise on US debt problem,” Reuters, November 15 @ onb November 16