Saturday, September 14, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Thirty-Two, The Two Faces of an Active-Positive Part One

Considering the length of this next President's tenure, and the fact that during his administration our nation was literally in two worlds - the first a massive economic crisis, the second a global war - I've decided to divide this one's entry into two articles.  Hopefully I'll be able to explain why...

My fading memories of AP American History remind me that one of the essay questions used was "Herbert Hoover was a liberal and Franklin D. Roosevelt a conservative, discuss."  In fact, a quick Google search showed me the question is still in use today.  I pity you high-schoolers.

The arguments made were that in practice Hoover the established pro-business Republican had done things considered "liberal" - increased taxes, expanded government - while Roosevelt the radical try-anything Democrat had done things "conservative" - cut taxes, gave business more free range.

The problem with that argument is sticking to the belief that "liberal" and "conservative" are static constructs.  The argument simplified what Hoover and FDR did on their own terms and under the legal and cultural restrictions of the day.  For one thing, a conservative (as politics usually define one) would never had unleashed the 1,001 different agendas that Roosevelt did throughout the New Deal era.  A liberal (as usually defined) would not have viewed government as limited in its authority which kept Hoover from fully resolving the crisis.

This is where viewing the Presidential Character as either Active-Passive and Positive-Negative makes more sense.  An Active-Positive like FDR would have cut taxes if the circumstances called for it, would have allowed more free trade if it made the economy work, would have done things that a modern-era Republican think paradoxically "Reagan did it first".  It's neither truly liberal or truly conservative.  It's Adaptive: the key trait of the A-P President.

FDR came into office at one of the greatest crises in American history.  The Great Depression had become a perfect storm of failing banks, mass unemployment, and financial ineptitude on a scale that would have - and did in Europe - collapsed powerful nations since the days of olde.  The economic collapse had led to regime changes in Italy and Germany, allowing the rise of fascism as a political alternative to the democratic republicanism seemingly failing in the West.  Soviet communism had taken root in Russia and was under the control of one of history's most brutal dictators.  A lot was at stake with FDR's administration: failure didn't mean a One-Term Presidency, it most likely meant a mass riot and the fall of the federal government to one extreme or the other.  And Roosevelt knew it.

Roosevelt brought with him a team of advisors and Cabinet officials that represented the broad spectrum of the political ideology: some were noted die-hard conservatives, some were hard-case liberals one step removed from communism.  Ideology didn't mean much to FDR outside of results: get the economy working again.  He famously said during his 1932 campaign that the thing to do during the crisis was "to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." 

And his administration proved it: a greater number of bills presented to Congress over the first 100 days (the first time an administration measured its efforts by that metric) than had been presented by any previous administration.  Relief projects begun under Hoover supported with greater funding and urgency.  New regulations put in place - like Glass-Steagall - to stop the questionable and chaotic financial speculation that had led to financial collapse.  And the first of several government-backed employment programs under the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed 250,000 young men to farms and conservation projects.

He did all this under withering criticism: from the Republican conservatives who questioned the budget deficits FDR was piling up and the constitutionality of much of the New Deal policies, and from the Far Left who questioned whether Roosevelt was doing enough in sharing the wealth and fixing everything in one broad stroke.  Both extremes noted that for all of the New Deal activity, the economy only barely improved by the end of Roosevelt's first term: Unemployment in particular was still in the double digits (14 percent) barely half of its 1933 high (24 percent).

FDR openly welcomed the hatred, especially from the rich elite that declared Roosevelt "a traitor to his class."  He plowed ahead on his New Deal, adding more projects and trying anything.  And some metrics of the economy were improving - Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was finally going upward after 1933 when during the 1929-32 period it had dropped - along with the nation's mood, well enough that when the 1936 Presidential campaign rolled around FDR won re-election in one of the biggest butt stompings in electoral history.

Professor Barber in his text notes why he uses Franklin D. as his model of the Active-Positive:

Roosevelt exhibited... what I see as a major contrast between the Active-Positive type in politics and other types... (they) are freer in their selections from a stylistic repertoire... (they) show how much richer and more varied range of emotional orientations is available to the politician whose character is firmly rooted in self-recognition and self-love.  The Active-Positive not only can perform lovingly or aggressively or with detachment, he can feel those ways.  As Roosevelt's case points out, the genuineness of those feelings can come across powerfully to close associations and to the public at large. (p. 295-6)
The empathy adds to the ability of being Adaptive.  Knowing what the situation is at one moment requires a response.  Realizing the situation can or has changed requires turning that response in a different direction, sometimes in a direction your supporters never saw on the horizon.  While other politicians can "flip-flop" on an issue for cynical reasons, the A-P personality has the confidence to express why the change was made and point out the empathetic reasons for doing so.  Above all is that Confidence: not the stolid "I Must" of an Active-Negative that Barber noted with Hoover, but the reckless "I Can".

But this shows one of the dangers - the second face - of the Active-Positive.  The danger of Overreach.  The "I Can Do This" in the most reckless of moments can be devastating to an A-P President.  Lincoln had that "I Can" feeling with his Emancipation Proclamation, a questionable edict that on the eve of the Civil War's end meant chaos unless the 13th Amendment could get passed.  Jefferson's "I Can" came not with the Louisiana Purchase but with the self-imposed trade embargoes as a response to the Napoleonic wars.

FDR's came with the Court Packing scheme.  Genuinely frustrated with a conservative Supreme Court that struck down some of the more impactful New Deal bills, Roosevelt figured at the start of his second term to use his political capital on a plan to give the President the power to add an extra SCOTUS Justice for every sitting Justice over the age of 70 (in 1937 that meant six new seats).

People outside and within Roosevelt's own administration freaked.  Some of the arguments FDR used in favor of the plan didn't make sense - one of Roosevelt's strongest supporters on the bench at the time was 80 years old for example, meaning age couldn't have been an issue - and the bill quickly got recognized even by New Deal advocates as a serious Executive branch threat to Judicial sovereignty.  Roosevelt may have had confidence in presenting the plan, but for once that famed A-P empathy failed to read the public mood.  Time, the unexpected loss of the legislative proponent to present the bill to Congress, and the changeover of the Supreme Court membership saved FDR the embarrassment of having the Court Packing bill reach a chamber floor and burn up in flames, but it quickly became the biggest failure of FDR's New Deal era.

FDR's two faces - the confident Adaptive leader, the Overreaching politico - would be combined into one  big reason why Roosevelt would eschew the tradition of letting go after two terms of office.  By 1940, there were problems on the national and international level that would stir the interest and challenge of any Active-Positive leader: the Second World War.

And that's where I'll leave off for Part Two. (link to be added later)

Next Up: What Did I Just Tell You?!  PART TWO DAMMIT.

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