The greatest liberal reformer since FDR?

Some White House insiders and commentators have said that President Obama’s legislative accomplishments make him the greatest liberal reformer since President Franklin Roosevelt.

President Obama

President Franklin Roosevelt

They forget a certain President of a generation back. This President created affirmative action in its present form. He responded decisively to an economic emergency by imposing wage and price controls.  He proposed a Family Assistance Plan which would guarantee a minimum income for all Americans, and a Comprehensive Health Insurance Act which would have provided a public option as an alternative to private health insurance.  He endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment for women.

The Comprehensive Health Insurance Act was rejected by Congress. So was the Family Assistance Plan, but the Earned Income Tax Credit was enacted as a substitute and compromise.

The President did sign into law the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air Act.  His administration established the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Council on Environmental Quality.

On the world stage, this President negotiated with leaders of a nation which was a sworn enemy of the United States.  This country financed anti-American insurgencies all over the world, including a country in which the United States was bogged down in a quagmire war.  Previous Presidents had responded with economic sanctions and non-recognition, but this President and his Secretary of State were able to reach agreement.

President Richard Nixon

Yet even after President Richard M. Nixon’s successful negotiations with China, he was not regarded as a liberal reformer, either by his liberal opponents or conservative supporters.  Yet President Obama, whose proposals are more cautious and legislative achievements (so far) more modest, is lionized by many of those same liberals and demonized by many of those same conservatives.

The point is not that liberals and conservatives can be inconsistent (I certainly don’t claim to be consistent) but how much the country has changed in the past 35 or 40 years.  What was then the lunatic fringe has become the mainstream; what was then the mainstream has come to be regarded as the fringe. What was regarded as the least that could be expected during President Nixon’s administration is regarded as more than is humanly possible in President Obama’s.

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3 Responses to “The greatest liberal reformer since FDR?”

  1. The Sanity Inspector Says:

    Dock one star from his halo for his wage and price controls, which helped cause the mid-70s recession.


  2. philebersole Says:

    I agree that wage and price controls were not a solution to anything.

    I have my doubts about both the intentions and results of the Philadelphia Plan, which required building trades unions in that city to make up for past racial discrimination by accepting two black apprentices for every three white apprentices – the first racial quotas.

    I’ll give Nixon credit for supporting civil rights laws to bring about desegregation, which were oppposed by Dwight Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was inspired by his Quaker heritage and not political calculation. At the same time he was fully aware that affirmative action would drive a wedge between the civil rights movement and majority-white labor unions.

    I was anti-Nixon when he was in office, and I was glad he was impeached
    the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach him and he resigned.

    But in view of the abuses of power his successors have gotten away with, I think more forgivingly of him now than I did then.

    I think there was a trend toward increasing use of government power to solve social problems that ran continuously from FDR through Nixon, which is why Noam Chomsky called Nixon “in many respects our last liberal President.”

    I think a point of diminishing returns was reached in terms of what could be accomplished, and so there has been a counter-trend running through Carter, Reagan, Bush 42, Clinton and Bush 44, and this has not been reversed under Obama.

    Under Carter and to some extend under Reagan, I thought the reaction against the welfare and regulatory state was a necessary correction. But now it seems that there is not going to be stop to the unraveling until we go back to the social conditions described by Charles Dickens.

    [edit 8/17/10 to correct error.]


  3. philebersole Says:

    Correction made.


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