Before Carter came Lyndon Johnson. You probably remember this presidency didn’t go well. Protesters outside the White House were calling him a murderer every day; he was challenged in the Democratic primary and pressured to quit his reelection race. So strong was the animus against Johnson that it transferred almost completely undiminished onto his successor, Hubert H. Humphrey, a liberal stalwart. (The demonstrations in Chicago in 1968 were, of course, directed not at Richard Nixon or even Johnson but Humphrey, whom angry demonstrators stalked on the campaign trail until the election.)
But what about John F. Kennedy, the liberal icon? Kennedy’s reputation benefited from a halo of martyrdom, deepened by liberals’ rage against Johnson, which retroactively cast Kennedy as far more liberal than he actually was. In reality, Kennedy’s domestic agenda slogged painfully through a Congress controlled by a coalition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. He campaigned promising federal aid for education and health insurance for the elderly but didn’t get around to passing either one. The most agonizing struggles came on Kennedy’s civil-rights agenda. His soaring campaign promises quickly grew entangled in a series of bargains with Jim Crow Democrats that liberals justifiably saw as corrupt. Kennedy understood he lacked the votes in Congress to push the civil-rights legislation he promised. He placated James Eastland, a powerful Jim Crow senator from Mississippi, by nominating the arch-segregationist judge William Harold Cox to the federal bench. Civil-rights leaders viewed Kennedy’s machinations with something less than unbridled gratitude. Martin Luther King Jr. said that Kennedy “vacillated” on civil rights. When he set up a meeting with activists, Kennedy was surprised to be “scorched by anger,” as G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot wrote in a recent history of the sixties.
Liberals are dissatisfied because they are incapable of feeling satisfied.
Harry Truman has become the patron saint of dispirited Democrats, the fighting populist whose example is invariably cited in glum contrast to whatever bumbling congenital compromiser happens to hold office at any given time. In fact, liberals spent the entire Truman presidency in a state of near-constant despair. Republicans took control of Congress in the 1946 elections and bottled up Truman’s domestic agenda, rendering him powerless to expand the New Deal, as liberals had hoped he would after the war had ended. Liberal columnist Max Lerner decried Truman’s mania for “cooperation” and his eagerness “to blink [past] the real social cleavage and struggles,” attributing this pathological eagerness to avoid conflict to his “middle-class mentality.” (Some contemporary critics have reached the same psychoanalysis of Obama, substituting his bi-racial background as the cause.) The New Republic’s Richard Strout lamented how “little evidence he has shown of being able to lift up and inspire the masses.” The historian Richard Pells has written that in the eyes of liberals at the time, “the president remained an incorrigible mediocrity.”
An exception to this trend, but only a partial exception, is Franklin Roosevelt, the most esteemed of the historical Democratic president-saints. Roosevelt is hard to compare to anybody, because his achievements were so enormous, and his failures so large as well (court-packing, interning Japanese-Americans). But even his triumphs, gleaming monuments to liberalism when viewed from the historical distance, appear, at closer inspection, to be riddled with the same tribulations, reversals, compromises, dysfunctions, and failures as any other. Roosevelt did not run for office promising to boost deficit spending in order to stimulate the economy. He ran castigating Herbert Hoover for permitting high deficits, then immediately passed an austerity budget in his first year. Roosevelt did come around to Keynesian stimulus, but he never seemed to understand it, and in 1937 he reversed himself again by cutting spending, helping plunge the economy into a second depression eventually mitigated only by war spending.
Liberals frustrated with Obama’s failure to assail Wall Street have quoted FDR’s 1936 speech denouncing “economic royalists,” but that represented just a brief period of Roosevelt’s presidency. Mostly he tried to placate business. When he refused to empower a government panel charged with enforcing labor rights, a liberal senator complained, “The New Deal is being strangled in the house of its friends.” Roosevelt constantly feared his work-relief programs would create a permanent class of dependents, so he made them stingy. He kept the least able workers out of federal programs, and thus “placed them at the mercy of state governments, badly equipped to handle them and often indifferent to their plight,” recalled historian William Leuchtenburg. Even his greatest triumphs were shot through with compromise. Social Security offered meager benefits (which were expanded under subsequent administrations), was financed by a regressive tax, and, to placate southern Democrats, was carefully tailored to exclude domestic workers and other black-dominated professions.
Compared with other Democratic presidents, Roosevelt enjoyed relatively friendly relations with liberals, but there nonetheless existed a left opposition during his time, mostly of socialists and communists, who criticized him relentlessly. Progressive senator Burton Wheeler complained that FDR, “for all his fine talk, really preferred conservatives to progressives.” And actually, the Roosevelt era had the same pattern we see today, of liberals angry with the administration’s compromises, and the administration angry in turn at the liberals. In 1935, Roosevelt adviser Rex Tugwell groused of the liberals, “They complain incessantly that the administration is moving into the conservative camp, but do nothing to keep it from going there.”