When Barack Obama was inaugurated, a Republican president had taken the peace, prosperity, and budget surpluses of the Clinton years and given us two wars, a devastated economy, and an almost trillion-dollar deficit. Obama was going to be our Franklin Roosevelt, our Winston Churchill—a visionary leader who would give America hope again. Instead, he has turned out to be the Neville Chamberlain of American politics, drifting toward national catastrophe, one compromise at a time.
Obama likes to think of himself as a successor to FDR. But this former supporter sees a different—and much less impressive—resemblance.
In the 1930s, desperate to keep the peace, Chamberlain caved in to every German demand. And he got war anyway. Let me be clear: the right-wing radicals in control of the Republican Party of course are not Nazis. But Obama is like Chamberlain. A decent man who values peace and civility at any cost, he’s no match for his Republican adversaries.
Chamberlain had a weak hand and played it poorly. Obama had a strong hand and threw in his chips. Immediately after his inauguration, he could have announced a bold effort to put America back to work—not a stimulus, but a recovery. When the Republicans threatened to filibuster, he could have taken his case to the American people and demanded an up-or-down vote to save the country.
Left: Chancellor of the Exchequer Neville Chamberlain in 1932.; Right: President Obama signs the Budget Control Act on Aug. 2, 2011., Popperfoto-Getty Images (left); Pete Souza / Courtesy of The White House
Instead, Obama meekly allowed the 60-vote super-majority needed to shut off a Senate filibuster to become, for the first time in our nation’s history, an automatic veto. No fools, the Republican minority used that power to block everything. If a vital new program didn’t automatically have 60 votes, Obama wouldn’t even bring it up. It was unilateral disarmament. And so we drifted toward disaster with half-measures forged in back rooms, from the timid stimulus that was a meager Band-Aid, to the timid health-care bill that no one likes, to the timid sellout deals on the deficit.
In the 2010 elections, Obama did another Chamberlain: he betrayed his allies. Desperate not to offend Republicans, he left Democratic values and programs undefended, the Democratic narrative unvoiced. Thousands of Democrats, from Congress to city councils, went down to defeat.
After each betrayal, after each terribly bad bargain, Obama comes out waving a piece of paper, a one-sided agreement to appease the Republicans—peace in our time. And Obama is always surprised when the Republicans, instead of being satisfied when he meets their demands, up the ante—as they did when they held the American economy hostage in the battle over raising the debt ceiling.
Emboldened by Obama’s appeasement, the GOP has set its sights on dismantling government itself. Its long-range goal isn’t to bring down the deficit. It’s to “starve the beast,” to gut the social programs that both parties have forged over the past century. And Obama has compromised so far in their direction that it’s hard to tell where he might stop.
A despair grips America today, a cold fear that our best days are behind us, that we are adrift and powerless. Yes, the Republicans are to blame. But so is a president who treats core American values as bargaining chips, who won’t fight for anything, who refuses to lead. It turns out hope does matter.
Americans aren’t inspired by well-meaning weakness. We like strong leaders, particularly in desperate times. FDR was trapped in a wheelchair and faced far greater challenges than Obama, yet he never gave the impression of being at the mercy of events. He set a course and followed it. He went out and got the votes he needed. So did Reagan. So did LBJ.
Chamberlain did one bold thing. He finally realized he was not the right man to lead Britain in dangerous times. He resigned so that Churchill could take over. There is one bold thing Obama could and should do. He should bow out of the race for reelection and throw his support behind Hillary Clinton—the leader we should have chosen in the first place.
Broyles, a screenwriter and former editor of NEWSWEEK, supported Barack Obama in 2008.