For the cover of its Nov. 24, 2008, issue, Time photoshopped the famed summer hat, oval-shaped eyeglasses and upwardly pivoted cigarette holder that defined the mug of President Franklin D. Roosevelt onto the face of then-President-elect Barack Obama. "The New New Deal," the headline read.
Back then, the parallels between Obama and Roosevelt were obvious. Obama was also a reform-touting Democrat who was elected after a Republican-led era in which deregulation and wild speculation resulted in a historic wealth gap and then an economic collapse, and like Roosevelt, he sold himself on optimism in an age of misery. "If [Obama] can do what FDR did — make American capitalism stabler and less savage — he will establish a Democratic majority that dominates U.S. politics for a generation," wrote Peter Beinart in that issue of Time.
Three and a half years later, Obama's success, as it can be felt by most Americans, is falling far short of Roosevelt's. Economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty recently gathered IRS data from the two eras. From 1933 to 1934, the average income of a citizen in the lower 90 percent of earners jumped by 8.8 percent while those in the top 10 saw a 3.4-percent reduction in their earnings. But from 2009 to 2010, incomes for 90-percenters barely changed while the highest-earning tenth saw an astonishing 21.5 percent spike. To put it succinctly, all the gains for the Obama recovery are going to the rich.
This is not a historical accident, but a result of each president's order of priorities. Obama has turned out to be a compromiser who seeks that much-promised change by tweaking but ultimately upholding a system that has been engorging the very rich for decades. Roosevelt was a headstrong reformer who accepted the urgency of the situation and insisted on a "new deal" to create an "equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth," in the words of his 1932 nomination speech. He managed to make life better for the lower and middle classes because that's exactly what he set out to do.
Through agencies like the Works Progress Administration, Roosevelt's government directly employed millions of people in that 90 percent, putting buying power right back into their hands and rebuilding roads and bridges for the benefit of the entire nation. Obama's stimulus programs spend a lot, but leave the system in place, greasing its gears by providing grants and tax breaks to private companies and states which, as always, have their hands outstretched.
Roosevelt openly railed against the bankers who caused the Great Depression, comparing them to "unscrupulous money changers" of the New Testament. Obama invited executives from the country's 13 largest banks to the White House and told them he was standing "between [them] and the pitchforks."
FDR instigated a slew of bank regulations to permanently prevent another depression. The Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act of 1999, which allowed banks to act as investment firms (undoing a key FDR regulation) and led to the housing bubble and then the 2008 crash, is still in place under Obama.
Through the Wagner Act, Roosevelt broadened the power of unions, another stabilizing force for the working class. Obama sat out the 2010 protests against the Wisconsin anti-collective bargaining bill, the opening salvo in Republicans' current war on organized labor.
Roosevelt passed tax increases on the rich and corporations through a skeptical Congress. Obama hasn't shown the political skill to get his more modest tax increases through.
FDR was everything Republicans accuse Obama of being. He was a big-government liberal who despised the monster that capitalism had become and stretched the powers of the presidency to redistribute wealth. He was also one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history, continually ranked alongside Washington and Lincoln in surveys of historians, and he got results: unemployment dropped from 25 percent in 1933 to 9 percent in 1937.
Obama is not facing a Grapes of Wrath situation, where millions of itinerant workers live on the verge of starvation. Though browbeaten, a vast majority of us are still fed, housed and chilling with cellphones and cable. So he can be forgiven for not acting with all of Roosevelt's urgency. But with the richest 10 percent controlling 80 percent of the country's wealth and more of it every year, the U.S. is descending into aristocracy. FDR would have never allowed that and neither would anyone who can rightly be called his successor.
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