Aug. 19, 2010
The National Portrait Gallery, across from my office in Washington, has a fine poster of President Barack Obama. He is shown wearing a rumpled fedora, riding in an open car, smiling that dazzling smile of his, and clenching a cigarette holder in his teeth at that same jaunty angle that was familiar to millions of Americans as that of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Every Democratic president tries to recap FDR.
I thought about that poster today as word of President Obamas most recent misery spread. It seems he has folks in Los Angeles in a fury about his recent fund-raising trip to the City of Angels. His motorcade held up traffic for hoursthe one thing you definitely do not want to do to harried California commuters.
This great city ought to be Obamas oyster. After all, he carried California by three million votes in 2008. But the president is increasingly getting raspberries wherever he goes.
Just last Friday night, he was speaking at an iftar dinner in the White House to a group of his Muslim admirers. I didnt even know they had iftar dinners in the White House. But he began his remarks in that deep and resonant tobacco baritone of his: Let me be clear... He proceeded to offer a very clear endorsement of building a mosque near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. His dinner guests applauded enthusiastically.
Next morning, the president began backpedaling furiously. He was not commenting on the wisdom of putting the mosque near the place where 3,000 Americans were murdered on 9/11, only on the Muslims constitutional right to build it. In other words: Let me be less clear. Let me try to lay down a smokescreen and beat a hasty retreat.
I can imagine Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) burning up the wires to the White House political operation after hearing that one. He is his partys campaign chairman for this fall. Are you trying to lose control of the House of Representatives, Van Hollen might have said.
The mosque at Ground Zero issue is a 70%-30% split. By a commanding margin, Americans do not want a mosque built near the site of the bloodiest attack yet on our homeland. Public officials who defy the people so heedlessly can expect to feel their wrath in the voting booths come November.
I have a recommendation for our beleaguered president: Do what FDR did. Show less of yourself. Yes, I know that was before the TV era. But Roosevelt knew that the mystery and aura of the presidency was enhanced by making presidential speeches and appearances less frequent. President Obama, like Bill Clinton before him, cannot resist being in our faces 24/7. Hasnt he ever heard the old saw familiarity breeds contempt?
One of my favorite political photographs is on sale at the store of the New York Times. Notice how the people are gathered on the train platform in Warm Springs, Georgia. Franklin D. Roosevelt is nowhere to be seen in this classic black and white picture. But his presence is felt.
Those hopeful, expectant Americans are excited at the prospect of seeing their elected chief.
Like all conservatives, I have serious questions about FDRs economic policies. And detailed study has shown me how seriously Roosevelt misjudged the threat of Communism. Still, as a political actor, he had no rivals.
An unapologetic Christian, Roosevelt never neglected religious minorities in this country. He faced down the bigots of his day who said his New Deal was actually a Jew Deal. FDR regularly worshiped in his Episcopal Church and his administration was not afraid to express an openly religious sentiment when fighting the Nazi menace.
The U.S. Government published this poster showing Nazis trying to destroy the Christian Bible. The Obama administration is afraid even to mention jihadist terrorists or speak of Muslim extremists.
The hope for change expressed by that Obama-as-FDR poster at the National Portrait Gallery seems to have faded. Now, the only common tie between our 32nd and 44th presidents is the cigarette smoke. And, tragically, that smoke probably killed Franklin Roosevelt.