The recent uproar over Time Magazine portraying President-elect Barack Obama as Franklin D. Roosevelt on its November 24, 2008 cover reminded me of some comments made at the time Roosevelt was facing the daunting task of dealing with the Great Depression. According to Jonah Goldberg’s book, LiberalFascism (see reference information below), radio commentator Walter Lippman told Roosevelt that “The situation is critical, Franklin. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.” (Page 123) Eleanor Roosevelt agreed, saying that a “benevolent dictator” might be the only answer for America. (Same page)
Many political experts agree that much of Roosevelt’s New Deal was enacted despite constitutional and other legal restraints. They agree that Roosevelt did act in many ways in a dictatorial fashion. Some people also agree that Roosevelt, in some of his policies, like Herbert Hoover, in some of his, served only to deepen the depression rather than solve it. It took America’s involvement in World War II to finally bring the nation back to financial stability.
Is the United States again approaching a financial situation where a president may have to take upon himself-or be granted-dictatorial powers? There are a number of troubling indications that something similar to Roosevelt’s approach could happen again.
First, in an interview several years ago, Obama expressed some concern about the “flawed” U. S. Constitution in that it states what the federal government cannot do to individuals, but fails to say what the government can do to individuals. Take that for what it is worth, but what would an Obama administration like to have the legal right to do to the citizens of this country?
Second, Obama, like Roosevelt in the 30s and 40s, is known for the words he speaks to the nation. Goldberg in Liberal Fascism writes “as economic policy, the New Deal was a failure.” (Page 222) What redeems Roosevelt in the minds of many contemporary people is that Roosevelt offered “hope” to the American people. He promised that things would be better. What actions will accompany the words about “hope” and “change” in the Obama administration? One hopes that they will be financially sound and appropriate.
Third, Roosevelt and other presidents have used crises in order to unify the American people behind some questionable policies. For Roosevelt, the war provided the context and justification for some programs that would not ordinarily be permitted by a free people. One big example was the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans and German-Americans on the unproved assumption that they could not be trusted to be loyal Americans. When financial or political crises loom, what decisions will government want to make that we will allow them to make? What decisions will we regret when the crisis has passed? What permanent policies will have been implemented at a time when they appeared to be right, but later seem anything but right?
Beginning with Woodrow Wilson and going through Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson, an agenda has been pushed forward that had moved the thinking of multitudes of people to the idea that the government is there to take care of them and to meet their every need. Individual initiative has been damaged and pushed to the edge of extinction. The current bailout proposals are the latest example of how we turn to government to save us rather than to ourselves to be responsible.
Conservative talk show host, Jason Lewis, is fond of saying, “I could turn this economy around in about six months if I were a dictator.” He doesn’t plan to be a dictator to straighten out our nation’s financial problems, but there may well be many just waiting for an opportunity to push through some long range plans that will only diminish our freedoms and increase our dependence on big government.
In a time of insecurity and uncertainty, people are willing to trade away freedoms. Are we approaching that point in the United States?
Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism (New York: Doubleday, 2007)