In the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt unseated a sitting president with the campaign slogan: "Happy days are here again!" Assuming the presidency in March 1933, he lifted the spirits of the nation with the assertion: "The only thing we have to fear...is fear itself!" A half-century later, as the US economy showed signs of recovery from a sustained recession, Ronald Reagan won a landslide reelection, campaigning on the slogan: "It's morning again in America!" Optimism, it seems, is a winning proposition in American politics.
First elected on the slogan "Yes we can!" Barack Obama's optimism was often was compared to that of Roosevelt and Reagan. But today, after the Democratic Party suffered major defeats in the mid-term elections and lost control of the United States Senate, many are drawing a different comparison to these lions of the last century. The implied lesson? If only Obama were a bit more like Roosevelt and Reagan, if only he had been able to counter the Republican narrative of fear, things would have turned out better for the Democratic Party!
It is true; Americans by and large seem to have lost their optimism, their fundamental belief in a better future. And by and large, Republicans did run a campaign of fear. Take the campaign of the incoming Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. The Senator from Kentucky ran a campaign that highlighted the dangers of foreign trade and labeled President Obama's efforts to move the United States toward renewable energies as a "war on coal." Not much optimism there.
While McConnell criticized a phony war, other Republicans were eager to rewrite the history of failed wars of the past. Raising the specter of the Islamic State in attacks against the incumbent Democrat, Senator Kay Hagan, the newly elected Senator from North Carolina, Thom Tillis, was characteristic. Ignoring the fact that Barack Obama won election with a pledge to bring American troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq, and conveniently forgetting that the sectarian violence now plaguing Iraq and Syria is a direct consequence of George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq, Tillis blamed the President and Senator Hagan for the rise of ISIS. When reporters pointed out that Tillis himself had failed to articulate a plan for dealing with ISIS the Republican candidate responded: Hagan is "responsible for it and she works for a commander in chief who's responsible for it."
Fear mongering served the Republicans well in this election, but would things have been different, if only Barack Obama had a bit of Roosevelt or Reagan in him? History suggests the answer is no.
Despite a convincing reelection in 1936, Franklin Roosevelt suffered a devastating defeat in the November 1938 midterm elections. The Democrats lost 72 seats in the House of Representatives and 6 in the Senate. The President's party retained official control of the Senate, but a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats from the Southern States effectively brought Roosevelt's New Deal politics to a standstill.
Despite Ronald Reagan's intense personal popularity and landslide reelection in 1984, the Republican Party lost control of the Senate only two years later, with the Democrats picking up 8 seats. Facing Democratic majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate, Reagan's "Conservative Revolution" had hit a wall in the 1986 midterm elections.
Whether Obama has turned out to be a weak and ineffective President is a proposition we can debate, but not on the basis of yesterday's elections. True, the President will no longer dominate the domestic political agenda. On that question, the elections leave no room for doubt. At home, Obama is indeed a lame duck.
But the President can to draw some strength and inspiration from the fact that both Roosevelt and Reagan achieved their most important foreign policy triumphs after they lost their power to dominate the domestic political agenda. After 1938 Roosevelt effectively led the United States into the Second World War and Reagan essentially ended the Cold War in the final years of his Presidency. It seems that lame ducks sometimes still can fly.