It was the most humble moment of President Obama’s last State of the Union address. At the end of a speech that largely touted the president’s accomplishments, Obama admitted that he regrets “that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” and then he imagined that this would not been the case if a more skilled leader held the reigns of the nation. “There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide,” he told the nation, “and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”
Obama’s wrong. Dead wrong. There’s absolutely no reason to believe that either man would have convinced the two parties to sit together around a campfire and sing “Kumbaya.” Nor, for that matter, is there any reason to think it would have been desirable for Lincoln or Roosevelt to prioritize partisan unity. Indeed, the reason we now remember them as two of our greatest presidents is entirely because they were not afraid to push a bold agenda even though that agenda outraged many entrenched political groups.
Didn’t We Fight A War Over That?
The notion that President Abraham Lincoln was some kind of bridge between political enemies is ridiculous on its face. Lincoln’s election so enraged Southern slaveholders that they literally decided to secede from the Union rather than being governed by the new president. Moreover, while the Confederate cause was both evil and treasonous, Lincoln came to office with only the thinnest veneer of electoral legitimacy. He won only 39.8 percent of the vote in a four-way contest in 1860 (though it is almost certainly the case that his share of the vote would have been higher if America’s enslaved residents had been able to cast a ballot).
The only midterm election during the Lincoln administration was a catastrophe for the president’s Republican Party, who lost 22 seats in a Congress with only 185 members. Meanwhile, the opposition Democrats gained 28. One consequence of this election was that Republicans lost their majority. If they wished to pass legislation, they now needed to either peel off Democrats or form a coalition with the conservative-but-opposed-to-secession Constitutional Union Party.
Indeed, Lincoln proved so divisive that Democrats captured his home state of Illinois’s legislature before the Great Emancipator had even served a full year in office. Worse, Democrats surged at the exact moment when the state was already scheduled to hold a constitutional convention, which the new legislature promptly rigged by giving extra representation to the state’s conservative southern counties. Though many of the aggressively partisan proposals offered by this convention were blocked by voters, the state overwhelmingly approved prohibitions on black settlement, voting and office holding within Illinois.
And then, of course, there was the aftermath of Lincoln’s presidency. Lincoln did not live to see the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Nor did he live to see Reconstruction briefly offer African-Americans a taste of freedom before Southern white supremacists regrouped and the rest of the nation lost its enthusiasm for attempting to cure Southern pathologies. The status of the Great Emancipator’s legacy would remain one of the most divisive subjects for more than a hundred years after Lincoln’s assassination, and America did not truly commit to abolishing the vestiges of slavery until the 1960s — a decision which itself played a major roll in realigning the Democratic and Republican Parties into their current, polarized state.
“That Crippled Son-of-A-Bitch . . . In The White House”
Nor was President Franklin Roosevelt, who is now celebrated for his stewardship during the twin crises of the Great Depression and the Second World War, an antidote to partisanship. When Roosevelt took office, America’s political parties were far less coherent than they are today, and Roosevelt’s Democratic Party was a basketcase. Just eight years before Roosevelt’s nomination, the Democratic party’s many factions required 103 ballots to settle on a candidate at the 1924 Democratic National Convention, eventually selecting former one-term congressman and ex-solicitor general John Davis (Davis would go on to argue in the Supreme Court against public school integration in one of the consolidated cases that became Brown v. Board of Education). Roosevelt’s presidency did not simply establish Democrats as the party of economic populism, however. It also helped birth the modern conservative movement.
Roosevelt would soon prove so divisive even within his own party that Davis would become one of the leading spokespeople against the president and his New Deal, along with the Democratic Party’s 1928 presidential nominee, former New York Gov. Al Smith. As I explain in my book, Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted, the organized rich man’s campaign against Roosevelt began with a letter Ruly Carpenter, a former DuPont executive, wrote to a friend who had previously served as the Democratic Party’s chairman. “Five negroes on my place in South Carolina refused work this spring,” the executive complained, because New Deal programs were enabling these black workers to find other jobs with higher pay.
Carpenter was not just one of the DuPont family’s former trusted lieutenants, he was also a member of the family by marriage, and he soon convinced his wealthy brothers-in-law Pierre and Irénée du Pont to unite many of America’s most fortune sons behind the banner of the American Liberty League, a kind of proto-Tea Party committed to the notion that the New Deal was unconstitutional.
Much of the Liberty League’s rhetoric, however, reads like a parody of the more modern Tea Party. “There can be only one Capital — Washington or Moscow” Smith told a Liberty League gathering in 1936. “There can be only one flag, the Stars and Stripes, or the red flag of the godless union of the Soviet. There can be only one national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner or the Internationale.”
Meanwhile, Davis took on a more states’ rights focused bent in his speeches, claiming that “there is something deeply humiliating in the present spectacle of a steady procession of mendicant Governors, Mayors, Boards of Trade and private pilgrims marching on Washington, like beggars with their tin cups, for a share of Federal alms.” He predicted that this dependence on Washington “must eventuate a union torn apart by the clash of group and sectional interests, or a despotism — under what name it matters not — strong enough to maintain our continental unity by force.”
At its peak, the Liberty League grew so powerful that it threatened to eclipse the Republican Party as the locus of American conservatism. Though it proved woefully ineffective in preventing Roosevelt’s landslide victory in 1936, that victory obscured widening political ruptures triggered by the president’s New Deal. Though many Democrats acquiesced in the president’s agenda despite misgivings during Roosevelt’s first term, Southern Democrats in particular were increasingly anxious about the power base he was building in their home states. Public works programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority helped modernize the region’s economy and brought desperately needed jobs in the process, and Roosevelt was wildly popular in the South as a result — in 1936, he won an astonishing 97 percent of the popular vote in Mississippi. Southern political barons began to fear that their constituents would look to Washington for relief and turn away from the barons themselves.
Nor was opposition to Roosevelt limited to the South. As David Kennedy explains in his Pulitzer Prize winning history Freedom From Fear, Roosevelt sparked bitter political divides between urban and rural regions of the country:
In a close analysis of congressional voting patterns in the mid-1930s, historian James Patterson found that the most powerful determinant of anti-New Deal sentiment among Democrats was “an anti-metropolitan ideology” that generated opposition to Roosevelt not only in the rural South but also in rural New England and the rural Midwest and West. . . . Thus as Roosevelt became ever more closely identified with urban, industrial workers, and as their representatives increasingly forced measures like Social Security and labor legislation onto the congressional agenda, a counterpressure began to build. It was Patterson asserts “the urban nature of the [New Deal] measures themselves” that most agitated Roosevelt’s opponents.”
Though Roosevelt eventually would go on to win two more presidential elections, this political opposition was coherent enough by 1937 to effectively halt Roosevelt’s domestic agenda. That year’s regular congressional session was devoted almost entirely to the Supreme Court — a result that, in fairness, Roosevelt probably made inevitable with his controversial plan to neutralize reactionary conservative justices through court-packing. As Kennedy writes, the “sole, pallid vestige of the New Deal spirit” that passed Congress was “a weak measure” that “only timidly encouraged the development of public housing projects.” Though a frustrated Roosevelt convened a special session of Congress in mid-November to take up additional New Deal proposals, not one became law during this session.
And while Roosevelt’s agenda was in free fall, a group of lawmakers released a “Conservative Manifesto” that Kennedy describes as “a kind of founding charter for modern American conservatism.” Gathering together the concerns of GOP partisans, managers fearful of ascendant unions, investors worried that higher wages and taxes would lead to less profits for the capitalist class, business agitated by federal regulation and white Southerners seeking to preserve segregation, this document, “as much as the New Deal that precipitated its articulation, was among the enduring legacies of the 1930s.”
The Beauty of Strife
Lincoln, in other words, failed to quell the sectional divides that eventually settled into a détente that left African-Americans in the cold for nearly another century. Roosevelt, meanwhile, birthed something very close to the modern Republican coalition, with its skepticism of taxes, unions, business regulation and, in all fairness, much of the nation’s progress on civil rights.
Most Americans, however, do not remember these men because they made enemies. We remember Lincoln as the president who held the union together and, albeit with some initial reluctance, eventually ended slavery. We remember Roosevelt as the man who, in Mario Cuomo’s words, “lifted himself from his wheelchair to lift this nation from its knees,” and then still found the strength to defeat one of the most evil regimes the world has ever known.
These are not great men because they brought the nation together. They are great men because they led their nations through great peril, and enacted revolutionary reforms in the process, despite the anger and polarization caused by their leadership.
At some level, President Obama understands this fact. His single most consequential legislative achievement is the Affordable Care Act, which has also sparked more hatred from his opposition than any legislation enacted in years. Obama’s refusal to abandon this project even after it drew such strident opposition was the most Lincolnesque — and the most Rooseveltesque — moment of his presidency.