President Barack Obama is facing a political situation this year not unlike the one President Franklin D. Roosevelt faced in 1937. Both men had come off sterling re-election victories for their second term, both economies were still plagued with problems of unemployment and slow growth, and both administrations had seen significant victories in Congress. The Democrats in 1937 controlled both houses; in 2012 they increased their majority in the Senate and decreased the Republican margin in the House. Both presidents had major foreign policy issues that remained unresolved.
For Roosevelt, like Mr. Obama, recession fears were paramount, although outwardly, Roosevelt, like Mr. Obama, continued campaign-like appearances to rejuvenate optimism and support. Roosevelt, in September 1937, took a lengthy presidential train ride through the Midwest to the West Coast, claiming in Idaho, for instance, that “I regain strength just by meeting the American people.” Calling for a farm program that filtered down to previously unaffected groups such as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, as well as for minimum wage and maximum hours legislation, Roosevelt also, like Mr. Obama, flailed against rich businessmen — not because of what they paid in taxes — but because of their corporate monopolies.
As economic indices continued to worsen throughout 1937, in terms of industrial production, personal income and employment (between 8 million and 11 million were jobless), Roosevelt became a reluctant spender, but spender nevertheless. Although his goal was to balance the budget within a year, Roosevelt decided in April 1938 to prime the money pump; a $3 billion spending bill and a proposal to study monopolistic activity of corporations were sent to Congress and quickly passed. Business conditions nudged up a bit by year’s end, but unemployment was still widespread.
In his frustration over the lack of tangible economic results and with residual arrogance from his big second-term victory, Roosevelt decided to make war on his enemies. Unlike Mr. Obama, with the GOP his target, Roosevelt focused on Southern conservatives in his own Democratic party that resisted his spending and anti-business policies. Beginning in August 1938, the president began supporting candidates in Democratic primaries against incumbent Southern congressmen.
Like Mr. Obama, who often references Republican opposition as a personal rebuke, Roosevelt took the same narcissistic low road:
“As President of the United States,” he said in a fireside radio chat, “I am not asking the voters of the country to vote for Democrats next November as opposed to Republicans or members of any other party. Nor am I, as President, taking part in Democratic primaries. As the head of the Democratic Party, however, charged with the responsibility of the definitely liberal declaration of principles set forth in the 1936 Democratic platform, I feel that I have every right to speak in those few instances where there may be a clear issue between candidates for a Democratic nomination involving these principles, or involving a clear misuse of my own name.”
The campaign was an utter failure, however; anti-New Deal incumbents in the South won handily in the primaries. In the midterm elections, the real beneficiaries were Republicans. The GOP incumbents lost not one seat, and the party went from 88 seats in the House to 170. It gained eight seats in the Senate.
It is in foreign policy that Roosevelt and Mr. Obama illustrate the most similarity. Both men could be clearly called procrastinators at least or negligent at worst in terms of foreign policy crises. To be sure, Roosevelt’s reluctance to do more in the European theater after Hitler’s rise to power and subsequent aggression could be attributed to the overwhelming attitude of the American people not to be involved in any intervention in Europe after the debacle of World War I.
Yet the Far East was another matter. Like the loss of life in Syria today, Japanese aggression into China in 1937 was ghastly, with the sacking of Nanking alone resulting in the murder of as many as 100,000 soldiers and civilians, the details of which were provided to Americans through graphic letters of missionaries long established in the nation.
Roosevelt’s response was rhetorical and confusing, embodied in a speech in Chicago on Oct. 5, 1937, asking for a “quarantine” of aggressor nations but without details or a subsequent plan of action. Two months later, when an American gunboat, the Panay, was sunk by Japanese planes on the Yangtze River, killing three Americans, the administration demanded and received an apology and indemnification. A guarantee against future incidents was hollow, however, for diplomatic tit for tat continued between the two nations for the next four years, ending in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Obviously much worse than the terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, the Pearl Harbor incident subsequently raised a furor when an American journalist, John T. Flynn, published a work in 1945 that contended that the U.S. government had cracked the Japanese code long before the attack and therefore knew what the Japanese were planning. After Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, a joint congressional committee investigated the matter for eight months, compiling 10 million words of evidence. Yet the committee could not reach any firm conclusion on whether the Roosevelt administration was at fault.
A majority report gave Roosevelt a clean bill of diplomatic health, contending that the attack was unprovoked and a total surprise; the minority report blamed Roosevelt for failing to coordinate cooperation among the various departments “in evaluating information and dispatching clear and positive orders to Hawaiian commanders as events dictated the growing imminence of war.”
The reports were preordained, what with the Democrats in control of the committee, providing one more familiar ring to the Roosevelt-Obama saga.
Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.