Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Kingfish From Wasilla

So there’s this Democratic president, elected to turn things around as a dedicated reformer during a catastrophic economic turndown, largely the fault of his predecessor. Well, he does his best, but you know, the economy is a difficult thing to turn around quickly, and many think he hasn’t done enough, is exhibiting a characteristic timorousness, didn’t do much the help the average Joe and Jill in their extremis, and let the Wall Street fat cats off with a slap on their paws. So a populist insurgency develops, that says the president has done too much in some ways and not enough in others, that the president is out of touch with real America, and that he has yet to turn the glittering platitudes of his campaign into meat and potatoes for the American people. Yes, we can all agree, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a real problem on when his hands when it came to the Kingfish, Huey P.Long.

Historians still debate whether Huey Long, and his fellow insurgents, c. 1934-1935, Francis Townsend of the Townsend Plan, a senior citizen pension, and Father Charles Coughlin, represented progressive populism or American crypto-fascism. Long was assassinated before one could tell, Townsend was co-opted, and Coughlin did of course move far to the right, but before he discovered the international Jewish conspiracy his politics and proposals were surprisingly progressive. The main planks in their platforms consisted of much closer regulation on Wall Street, confiscatory taxes on the rich, a whole array of social programs. All in all, they were a far more impressive bunch than Sarah Palin and the tea partyers, but I guess every generation gets the populists they deserve, and our degraded political times certainly deserves Sister Sarah and the Palinites. First time as tragedy, second time as farce.

The point is, everyone makes too much of a big deal about FDR’s first 100 days, and they made much much too much of a big deal about Obama’s first 100 days, but the most progressive phase of the New Deal, the part gave us social security, the Wagner Act, the Wages and Hour acts came not in mid 1933 but in 1935, as FDR niftly co-opted the populist insurgency to his right, or to his left, or wherever it was. And this is what Obama has to do. There was no way he could met all the expectations that was raised of his presidency in his first year. What he has to do now is more focused. Respond to his political challenges and challengers. Obama needs to remember the most successful populist president in American history always spoke in the clipped accent of a Hudson River aristocrat. Elitists always make the best populists.