Opponents have unleashed a torrent of hyperbolic claims and heated invective in an effort to stop President Obama's healthcare reform. But the president shouldn't be surprised by the rhetoric.
Three-quarters of a century ago, nearly identical denunciations were used in an attempt to kill legislation that created one of the country's most popular government programs: Social Security.
Though no one was talking about "death panels" back then, opponents claimed that Social Security would result in massive government control. A Republican congressman from New York, for example, charged: "The lash of the dictator will be felt, and 25 million free American citizens will for the first time submit themselves to a fingerprint test."
Another New York congressman put it this way: "The bill opens the door and invites the entrance into the political field of a power so vast, so powerful as to threaten the integrity of our institutions and to pull the pillars of the temple down upon the heads of our descendants." A Republican senator from Delaware claimed that Social Security would "end the progress of a great country and bring its people to the level of the average European."
Today, opponents of a public health insurance option claim that it would drive private health insurance out of business and put a bureaucrat between doctors and patients. Back then, opponents of Social Security warned that it would "establish a bureaucracy in the field of insurance in competition with private business" that would "destroy" private pensions.
Then as now, opponents played the socialism card. In hearings before the Senate Finance Committee, a senator from Oklahoma accusingly asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, "Isn't this socialism?" When Perkins emphatically answered no, the senator leaned forward and, with a conspiratorial whisper, pressed, "Isn't this a teeny-weeny bit of socialism?"
Unlike today, however, the political rhetoric never gained traction in 1935. Though nearly every Republican in Congress was vehemently opposed to Social Security, Roosevelt prevented them from controlling the debate. Months before Congress was presented with legislation, FDR sought to immunize the public.
In a series of fireside chats and other broadcasts, the president anticipated arguments and responded before public opposition got out of control. "A few timid people, who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing," he said in one talk. "Sometimes they will call it 'fascism,' sometimes 'communism,' sometimes 'regimentation,' sometimes 'socialism.' But, in so doing, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and very practical. ... I believe that what we are doing today is a necessary fulfillment of what Americans have always been doing -- a fulfillment of old and tested American ideals.
In order to generate both sound legislation and broad-based support, Roosevelt established an interagency committee with a professional staff to craft the legislation and an advisory council made up of sympathetic representatives of business, labor and the general public, carefully balanced with Republicans and Democrats, to endorse and explain the new program.
When the legislation was introduced in Congress on Jan. 17, 1935, the president delivered a message asking for speedy action, and, once again, he framed the debate. His legislation, he explained, "has not attempted the impossible, nor has it failed to exercise sound caution and consideration of all of the factors concerned, [including] ... the capacity of industry to assume financial responsibilities and the fundamental necessity of proceeding in a manner that will merit the enthusiastic support of citizens of all sorts."
He concluded forcefully. "No one can guarantee this country against the dangers of future depressions, but we can reduce these dangers. ... This plan for economic security is at once a measure of prevention and a method of alleviation. We pay now for the dreadful consequence of economic insecurity -- and dearly. This plan presents a more equitable and infinitely less expensive means of meeting these costs. We cannot afford to neglect the plain duty before us. I strongly recommend action."
And Congress did act. Social Security was signed into law 74 years ago today.
It may be too late for President Obama to frame and control the debate over healthcare reform. But if he is to have a successful administration, he should learn from FDR. Like Roosevelt, he must talk directly to the American people. He must clearly demonstrate with words and deeds, as FDR did, that he is fighting for the interests of Main Street, not Wall Street. He should frame future debates on his terms -- before opposing politicians shape the message their way. By emulating FDR, Obama will find the bipartisanship he seeks, not inside the halls of Congress but among a broad cross section of Americans who are focused on pragmatic solutions rather than partisan advantage.
The parallels between the challenges faced by Obama and Roosevelt are many. Like FDR, Obama is confronted with economic collapse and deadly fighting overseas. The two men have similar strengths as well. Like Obama, FDR was an eloquent orator and an inspiring leader. If Obama follows Roosevelt's lead, he, like FDR, may well produce a legacy that grateful Americans will be writing and talking about three-quarters of a century from now.