Roosevelt: ‘Your government has unmistakable confidence in your ability to hear the worst without flinching and losing heart.’ Obama: We don’t ‘always think clearly when we’re scared.’
Whatever the outcome of today’s election, this much is clear: It will be a long time before Americans ever again decide that the leadership of the nation should go to a legislator of negligible experience—with a voting record, as state and U.S. senator, consisting largely of “present,” and an election platform based on glowing promises of transcendence. A platform vowing, unforgettably, to restore us—a country lost to arrogance and crimes against humanity—to a place of respect in the world.
We would win back our allies who, so far as we knew, hadn’t been lost anywhere. Though once Mr. Obama was elected and began dissing them with returned Churchill busts and airy claims of ignorance about the existence of any special relationship between the United States and Great Britain, the British, at least, have been feeling less like pals of old.
In the nearly 24 months since Mr. Obama’s election, popular enthusiasm for him has gone the way of his famous speeches—lyrical, inspired and unburdened by the weight of concrete thought.
About the ingratitude of Democratic voters the president brooded in a September Rolling Stone interview. “If people now want to take their ball and go home,” he declared, “that tells me folks weren’t serious in the first place.” His vice president, Joe Biden, had a few days earlier contributed his own distinctive effort to seduce Democrats back to the fold by telling them to “stop whining.”
The results of this charm campaign remain to be seen. What’s clear now is that we’ve heard quite enough about the “angry electorate”—a peculiarly reductive view of citizens who’ve managed to read all the signs and detect an administration they were not prepared to live with.
Nothing wakened their instincts more than the administration’s insistence on its health-care bill—its whiff of totalitarian will, its secretiveness, its display of cold assurance that the new president’s social agenda trumped everything.
But it was about far more than health-care reform, or joblessness, or the great ideological divide between the president and the rest of the country. It was about an accumulation of facts quietly taken in that told Americans that the man they had sent to the White House had neither the character or the capacity to lead the country.
Their president was the toast of Europe, masterful before the adoring crowds—but one who had remarkably soon proved unable to inspire, in citizens at home, any belief that he was a leader they could trust. Or one who trusted them or their instincts. His Democratic voters were unhappy? They, and their limited capacities, were to blame.
These are conspicuous breaks in the armor of civility and charm that candidate Obama once showed—and those breaks are multiplying.
At a Democratic fund-raiser a few weeks ago, the president noted, in explanation for the Democrats’ lack of enthusiasm, that facts and science and argument aren’t winning the day because “we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared.” The suggestion was clear: The Democrats’ growing resistance to his policies was a product of the public’s lack of intellectual capacity and their fears.
Decades ago another president directly addressed Americans in a time of far greater peril. “Your government has unmistakable confidence in your ability to hear the worst without flinching and losing heart,” Franklin Roosevelt told his national audience. The occasion was a fireside chat delivered Feb. 23, 1942. No radio address then or since has ever imparted a presidential message so remarkable in its detail, complexity and faith in its audience.
It was delivered just a few months after Pearl Harbor, a time when the Allied cause looked bleakest. It would be known to history as “The Map Speech.” The president had asked Americans to have a map at hand, “to follow with me the references I shall make to the world- encircling battle lines of this war.” He took them through those lines, the status of battles around the globe, the enemy’s objectives, centers of raw material and far more. By the time they had finished poring over their maps with him they had had a considerable education.
It is impossible to imagine what might have been the effect if the current president, who is regularly compared to FDR—always a source of amazement—had tried anything like a detailed address explaining, say, the new health-care bill. Though this would have required knowledge of what was actually in the bill (a likely problem) and a readiness to share that news (an even greater one).
Despite the ongoing work of legions grinding out endless new and improved proofs that FDR was a despoiler of democracy and our economic system, it is worth remembering the reason virtually all serious historians rank him among the top three of our greatest presidents.
Franklin Roosevelt led the nation through 12 years begun in incomparable national misery virtually to the end of the war. When he died, an anguished country mourned as it had not done since the death of Lincoln. Americans trusted him. The story is told of a man found weeping when Roosevelt’s funeral train went past, who was asked if he had known the president. “I didn’t know him,” he replied. “But he knew me.”
The times are now vastly different—no one expects a candidate with the powers of an FDR these days. But the requirements of leadership don’t change. Despite charm and intellect, Americans have never been able to see in Mr. Obama a president who spoke to them and for them. He has been their lecturer-in-chief, a planner of programs for his vision of a new and progressive society.
Plenty of suggestions, none of them feasible, are in the air now about how he can reposition himself for 2012, and move to the center. Mr. Obama is who he is: a man of deep-dyed ideological inclinations, with a persona to match. And that isn’t going away.
The Democrats may not take a complete battering in the current contest, but there is no doubt of the problems ahead. This election has everything to do with the man in the White House about whom Americans have lost their illusions. Illusions matter. Their loss is irrecoverable.
Ms. Rabinowitz is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.
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