At the risk of harping on a three-minute video, I want to respond to something from over the weekend. Steve Benen had a look at Barack Obama’s last lecture, and let’s just say he had a different reaction. But he made a point that I wanted to get to in my original post, so now I can just get to it here. Benen writes:

I often think about Social Security at its origins. In 1935, FDR accepted all kinds of concessions, excluding agricultural workers, domestic workers, the self-employed, the entire public sector, and railroad employees, among others. And why did the president go along with this? Because Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to cut deals with conservatives, even in his own party — many of whom were motivated by nothing more than racism — in order to get the legislation passed.

When delivering red-meat speeches in public, FDR saw his Republican critics and “welcomed their hatred.” When governing, FDR made constant concessions — even if it meant occasionally betraying his principles and some of his own supporters — in order to get something done.

Obama’s focus on the Huffington Post is probably misplaced — there are far better examples — but the larger point seems persuasive to me. Wouldn’t FDR have faced a bitter backlash from the left? Wouldn’t Lincoln have drawn howls for compromising on the greatest moral crisis in American history?

Um, they did, and we should fill in the history here. I wrote a pretty long story about this for Democracy Journal. Yes, when Roosevelt came up with a meager Social Security system, many of the activists working on the issue for years were unhappy. Rather than cover this territory again, I’ll just quote myself. “Townsend” mentioned here refers to Francis Townsend, the retired physician who led the movement for old-age pensions, building a grassroots army across the country that claimed 20 million supporters.


David Dayen

David Dayen