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An American president is sinking fast, dragged down by his signature domestic initiative. He overcame initial opposition by ramrodding his legislation through Congress, where members did not even read it, and then pressured the Supreme Court to defend the law against serious charges of unconstitutionality. Tactical victories, however, gave way to real political defeats, as his policies failed to work as promised. The president’s poll numbers have taken a nose-dive, and Congress has begun to fight back against an imperial executive.
At the same time, foreign threats loom. Authoritarian governments are on the march as America’s retreat from its global responsibilities has given our enemies renewed confidence and time to rearm, even as our allies lose direction and hope. The American electorate seems determined to turn its back on the outside world, after draining, difficult conflicts where America’s armed forces won the war but her politicians lost the peace.
It would be hard to find a better way to describe the current state of President Barack Obama’s second term, as we approach his January 28 State of the Union address. But with a few modifications it could also describe the state of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency at about the same point in his second term when, after spending the first term ramming through the New Deal, he launched a disastrous campaign to pack the Supreme Court, hearing constitutional challenges to his plans. His tough political tactics sparked a revolt in Congress that killed his Court-packing plan and led to a broad rejection of his platform in the 1938 midterm elections. The country was also about to stumble into a second economic depression, almost as severe as the one that had put Roosevelt in office in 1932; a less-severe but similar disaster could befall Obama.
Yet instead of slipping into permanent lame-duck status, Roosevelt managed to turn his presidency around by outmaneuvering a Congress even more hostile than the one Obama faces today. Only FDR’s political leadership and astute use of presidential power dragged the nation out of its isolationist dreams and transformed it into the great Arsenal of Democracy that defeated the Nazis and Japan.
For that, FDR truly deserves his place as one of our nation’s greatest presidents. To follow in the greatest Democratic president’s footsteps, Mr. Obama should turn the powers of his office and his personal political gifts to confront the new rise of authoritarianism that threatens American security. Struggling to change the subject to income inequality and class warfare, as President Obama and his team are trying, ignores FDR’s example.
Roosevelt made a simple yet dramatic change in direction, shifting the focus of his constitutional and political powers as chief executive away from trying to expand federal powers at home and toward confronting the gathering storm abroad. FDR did not stubbornly double-down on the New Deal. As he later said in a 1943 press conference, “Dr. Win the War” replaced “Dr. New Deal.” While the American people today may seem reluctant to exercise global leadership, FDR faced even steeper domestic opposition in his day. An isolationist Congress passed Neutrality Acts from 1935 to 1939 designed to keep the United States from aiding anyone in the European and Asian conflicts. This reflected public opinion: While a bare majority of Americans came to support aid to the Allies between 1939 and 1941, as late as May 1941, 80 percent of Americans still wanted the United States itself to stay out of World War II.
It was in October 1937 that Roosevelt gave his first speech calling for “a quarantine of the aggressor nations,” meaning Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and imperial Japan. Today, China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia have replaced the aggressors of old. President Obama’s upcoming State of the Union address could be the perfect occasion to start rallying America to confront the rising tide of dictatorship in the Middle East and Asia — without putting another pair of American boots on the ground, launching another Predator drone, or spending another defense dollar.
How? Launch a modern-day version of what Franklin Roosevelt called the “Arsenal of Democracy,” which supplied the Western liberal powers with the arms they needed both before and after the outbreak of World War II — which ultimately enabled the United States and its allies to win the greatest conflict in history. A similar unleashing of American defense production to arm our allies could have a powerful deterrent effect on today’s “aggressor nations” and help restabilize a world that’s grown more anxious and dangerous. Just as important, it would boost jobs and economic prosperity here at home, in the same way the original Arsenal broke the back of the Great Depression in 1939–40.
Since he faced a public whose instincts were deeply isolationist, Roosevelt’s approach was both cautious and cumulative. A year after his Quarantine Speech, he ordered a major redeployment of the U.S. Navy to meet the gathering crisis in Europe. In 1939, he worked with Congress to make major changes in Neutrality Acts, which he himself had signed, in order to help arm the Western democracies against the Axis threat.
The result was munitions orders pouring in from Britain and France through the doors of American factories and plants. In 1938, orders to U.S. aviation firms stood at $350 million. Two years later they were three times that number. Our allies had 13,000 aircraft on order at a time when our own Army and Navy were barely ordering 5,000.
Indeed, if Roosevelt had moved sooner and faster, American-made warplanes, tanks, machine guns, and warships might have been enough to disrupt Germany’s war plans. If Britain and France had been better armed and more confident of American support, they might have acted earlier against Germany and prevented the outbreak of war altogether, and stimulated economic recovery years earlier.
Of course, history’s what-ifs are hard to measure. Today’s global crisis is not.
Across Asia and the Middle East, our allies are looking to modernize and expand their military budgets in order to deal with the growing belligerence of China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Japan’s defense ministry wants a 3 percent boost in spending in fiscal year 2014, to $49 billion. South Korea is considering an even bigger boost this year, 4.2 percent, while the Philippines is gearing up to modernize its air and sea forces as China continues to bully neighbors in the South and East China Seas. Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates are also in the market to bolster their militaries, as Iran’s malign influence grows in Syria and Lebanon — and as Russia has become a dominant naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean for the first time since the 1970s.
America’s defense firms are more than ready to meet the growing demand, for supply ships and tanker planes and missile defense, if President Obama and Congress can agree on a comprehensive plan to make such trade possible. A first step would be to amend the two pieces of legislation that oversee American foreign arms sales — the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 — much as Roosevelt amended the Neutrality Act in 1939. Both are relics of the Cold War, constraining our firms’ ability to compete for contracts and steering arms sales toward monolithic big-ticket items such as the F-35 fighter instead of systems our allies really need and want for force-building.
A second would be to use the bully pulpit of the presidency, just as Roosevelt did, to build public awareness of the challenge posed by today’s aggressors, and to reassure our allies that we will help them garner the resources they need to make their neighborhoods safe.
Turning public attention toward foreign shores won’t be easy. The latest Pew poll shows isolationism in the United States at a 50-year high, with eight out of ten Americans saying that we should “not think so much in international terms” and that we should focus instead on problems at home. But images of the al-Qaeda flag flying over Iraqi cities that Americans fought and died to liberate (to say nothing of the same flag flying in Libya, Yemen, and Syria) is at least one sharp reminder of the costs when America retreats from its role as leader of the free world.
In his 1940 State of the Union, FDR said that “our best defense is the promotion of the general welfare and domestic tranquility,” but noted that “it becomes clearer and clearer that the future world will be a shabby place to live in — yes, even for Americans to live in — if it is ruled by force in the hands of the few.”
President Obama needs to make a similar case: A new Arsenal of Democracy will strengthen our allies, boost our economy, and preserve our own defense-industrial base at a time when Pentagon budgets are bound to be flat and even declining. It will also make it clear that we are no longer going to stand by and watch anarchy surge across the globe.
The president’s legacy doesn’t have to be “if you like your plan, you can keep it.” It could be his role as the protector of Western values in the 21st century, defending freedom abroad, creating jobs at home, and promoting stability and security in a world that sorely needs both.
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