Easy Chair — From the September 2011 issue

A Letter to Barack Obama

George McGovern in New Hampshire, 1972. © Constantine Manos/Magnum Photos


When President Franklin Roosevelt came into office in the depth of the Great Depression, he sought to stabilize and empower American society by introducing bold new initiatives: Social Security, the Public Works Administration, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Rural Electrification Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, among many others. These measures were sufficiently successful, as was his leadership during World War II, that he secured four terms in the White House. There was some congressional resistance but not enough to block the support of both political parties.

Like Roosevelt, President Barack Obama has inherited a serious economic crisis, but in his first two years in office he has been met with an even worse problem: the rigid opposition of the rival party leaders to national health care and nearly every other proposal he has made. The Republican House Appropriations Committee has even voted to terminate public funding for NPR and PBS. Neither during my four years in the House of Representatives, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House, nor through eighteen years in the U.S. Senate, under John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon, have I witnessed any president thwarted by the kind of narrow partisanship that has beset Obama. He has tried to avoid such divisions by publicly explaining his willingness to compromise, but these gestures have been spurned. Some of his political critics have gone so far as to express the hope that the Obama Administration will fail, even avowing their determination to hasten that failure. What has happened, one is compelled to ask, to the love of nation?

I have learned that it is not easy to succeed either as a senator or as a president if you are pushing for fundamental change. We tend, as lawmakers and as citizens, to drift along with the familiar ways of thinking: If it is good enough for Grandma and Grandpa, it is good enough for us. If it is good enough for the flag-wavers and the boasters, it is good enough for us. Such resistance to change often is strengthened by powerful interests—nowhere more forcefully than in the National Defense bill that Congress considers and passes each year.

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co-wrote "The Way Out of War" in the October 2006 issue of Harper's. A former U.S. congressman, senator, Democratic presidential candidate, and Harper's Magazine Foundation board member, McGovern passed away on October 21, 2012.

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October 2019