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Axelrod says Obama faces an FDR moment

David Axelrod argues that Barack Obama, like FDR before him, is refusing to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, on Social Security.
David Axelrod argues that Barack Obama, like FDR before him, is refusing to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, on Social Security.
David Axelrod/Twitter

When former Obama adviser David Axelrod speaks to a roomful of seniors these days, they mostly want to talk about Social Security, and the President’s proposal to cut future benefit increases. Responding to their unhappiness with that idea, Axelrod compares Obama’s actions to those of a President the seniors revere: Franklin Roosevelt.

Friday night, Axelrod spoke to nearly 100 elderly residents at Montgomery Place, a “Continuing Care Retirement Community” on Chicago’s South Side. His father-in-law lives there.

Most of his talk was biographical— becoming hooked on the pageantry of politics when he was 5 and JFK came to his neighborhood to campaign… passing out fliers for Robert Kennedy when he was but 9… “breaking with the Democrats” the year after that, to work for liberal Republican John Lindsay’s campaign for mayor… coming to the University of Chicago and landing a job as the Hyde Park Herald’s political columnist at age 19…

The audience, many of whom were liberal Hyde Park retirees, clearly loved the trip down Memory Lane of lefty Chicago politics past— his first campaign as a consultant, helping Paul Simon get elected US Senator, his horror when Rod Blagojevich wanted to hire him for a campaign for Governor but couldn’t say why he wanted the job (“you can help me figure that out” was Blago’s reply to Axelrod), and his early days with Barack Obama.

He talked of coming to realize, on a campaign swing through rural southern Illinois, that Obama could be comfortable in any crowd, partly due to his biracial, multi-cultural upbringing. He recounted reading an early draft of Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address while on vacation in Europe, claiming he foresaw the speech would be a classic and vault Obama to prominence.

Most everyone in the crowd was an Obama supporter. Some had voted for him in his first political race, for State Senate in 1996. Obama, after all, lived just blocks away in Hyde Park. They loved Axelrod’s assertion that Obama had “given me my idealism back”, after years of plying the consultant’s trade in the often-unseemly world of Chicago politics.

But while they nodded appreciatively at the stories of Obama’s past triumphs, there was dismay over his current proposal to tie Social Security benefits to a “chained CPI”, which will slow future increases. Some called the President’s plan a “giveaway” in budget negotiations with Congress. One elderly woman compared it to Obama’s “giveaway” of a single-payer health care system in negotiations over health care reform.

Axelrod has heard these criticisms before, from liberal Democrats who worry the President “negotiates from the middle” too often.

He contended that staking out an absolutist negotiating stance might “maintain our virtue”, but yield no real progress on freeing money to pay for infrastructure improvements, research and development, and other Obama priorities.

He also invoked the sainted example of FDR, recalling that the initial Social Security Act excluded many potential black recipients through provisions inserted in the bill to placate powerful Dixiecrat chairmen of key committees— the kind of folks whose support was essential to passing anything.

Roosevelt, said Axelrod, could have chosen to stand on principle and refuse to sign the imperfect Social Security Act. Instead, he chose flawed progress over no progress at all. Axelrod predicts that Republicans, having seen their poll numbers plummet after toeing a hard budget line in the past couple of years, might be in a compromising mood this time around.


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