The quest for campaign money has turned Barack Obama into a president without a spine
By Ed Griffin-Nolan
Four hours and change from Clinton Square, absent traffic, you can take a brief but scenic tram ride over the East River and disembark on Roosevelt Island, a sliver of land stuck between Queens and Manhattan. Roosevelt Island is a city within the City. Barely 10,000 people live there. Many of them work at the United Nations, and on a quiet walk around the island you can hear the native tongues of people from at least five continents. On the southern tip of the island you can see workers putting finishing touches on Four Freedoms Park, a monument to our 32nd president, for whom the island was named in 1973.
Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, given to Congress in 1941, was a rhetorical landmark akin to the Gettysburg Address. In it he attempted to expand the notion of freedom beyond freedom of speech and freedom to worship, to include “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want.” Seventy years later, as we face hard times the country has not known since Roosevelt’s day, his claim upon the American conscience still echoes in our national debate over the role of government in promoting economic and social justice.
There is another speech by Franklin Roosevelt making the rounds on You Tube. You can find it by going to You Tube and searching “FDR Hatred.” That’s right, hatred. In the speech Roosevelt, getting ready for his first re-election campaign, shows a spine that many progressives seem to be begging our current president to demonstrate. Listen in:
“For 12 years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away… Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.
For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace…business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred.”
“I welcome their hatred.” That’s a far cry from Barack Obama’s invitation to John Boehner to play golf on the eve of their steel cage death match over the debt limit crisis. It’s a far cry even from his “beer summit” with Henry Louis Gates and the Massachusetts police officer who arrested him on the porch of his own house. And it is a very far cry from the O bama who, when given the opportunity to finally advance universal health care in this country (did somebody say “freedom from fear”?), essentially turned to those who would privatize Medicare and said, “So what did you have in mind?” Obama seems to genuinely believe that compromise and bipartisanship are ends in themselves. Rather than stand his ground and argue from principle, he reaches out to those who seek no compromise and, in the end, gets not half a loaf but only a few crumbs. Rather than welcoming the hatred of those who will never agree with him, he keeps trying to find a way to seem more likable, folksier and easier to get along with than the other guy.
The comparison with FDR makes Obama an easy target for disappointed progressives. Too easy. For the problem is not with the president but with what Roosevelt referred to as “organized money.” Candidate Obama knows that he simply cannot afford to offend the big money that will make or break his chance for a second term. It’s not about his personality: It’s about the crooked rules of the road in modern politics.
Political campaigning today is about gathering money first and public support second. That is a national scandal. This year’s ruling by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case, removing limits on giving by corporations and unions, will only make matters worse. The court erred mightily by equating political donations with free speech. In truth most citizens today sit on the sidelines feeling that our voices do not count while those with the money purchase a seat at the table. Citizens United has effectively killed freedom of expression for everyone except “organized money.”
Republican and Tea Party activists love to use the phrase “take our country back.” Well, our country gets sold every November to the highest bidder. The only way we will get it back is to buy it back, through publicly financed campaigns. Then politicians will have nothing to fear but us.“ Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob ”
—Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Read Ed Giffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary weekly in the Syracuse New Times. You can contact him at edgriffin@ twcny.rr.com.