Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House on Monday, November 2, 2009. (SAUL LOEB)
U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House on Monday, November 2, 2009. (SAUL LOEB)

Jeffrey Simpson

Obama's biggest threat is his country's future, not its ranters Add to ...

In 1926, Charles Coughlin, a Canadian-born Roman Catholic priest, began preaching in a tiny parish in Detroit. A decade later, he was a household name, the Radio Priest, fulminating against Franklin Roosevelt.

Across the United States, tens of millions of Americans listened to Father Coughlin's Sunday-afternoon sermons, which were more about politics than religion. So great was the priest's fan mail at the apogee of his popularity that he needed 106 clerks and four personal secretaries to handle it.

Roosevelt, he thundered, had "out-Hoovered Hoover," a reference to former president Herbert Hoover, by protecting "plutocrats" and "Communists" and allowing the U.S. to fall under the sway of international bankers who were behind the Great Depression. When Roosevelt recommended that the U.S. join the World Court, Father Coughlin went into rhetorical overdrive to kill the idea, which, indeed, died.

Father Coughlin was not alone in those years. Huey Long and the Hearst newspapers - among other voices - played up conspiracies against the republic, attacked communism at home and abroad, and accused Roosevelt of abetting these threats.

Roosevelt won four elections, of course, in the face of this persistent demagoguery, with his Republican opponents taking between 36 per cent and 46 per cent of the popular vote.

Today, as Barack Obama celebrates the first anniversary of his election victory, he and all observers of American politics and society might remember the Father Coughlins of U.S. history.

Like Roosevelt, Mr. Obama has been assaulted by the fiercely ideological, somewhat paranoid, well-financed and media-savvy battalions of the U.S. right. They have their audiences and their causes and the closed loops of their supporters.

They have their rhetoric, too. Just as Father Coughlin warned against handing over the country to people whose names most Americans could not spell, so the most popular Fox News TV host wonders whether the President is working to put the U.S. under a fascist regime. Still others in the blogosphere question whether Mr. Obama is an American citizen or a Muslim who intends to make the U.S. a "socialist" country.

These days, the electronic media dominate information and news: There's the blogosphere and ferociously right-wing websites and, of course, Fox News. In Father Coughlin's time, radio was coming into its own. He mastered that medium with a voice that novelist Wallace Stegner described as "one of the greatest speaking voices of the 20th century." Most of America's newspaper editorial boards remained hostile to Roosevelt. So did most of the country's business community.

Today's right-wing ranting is the current iteration of what historian Richard Hofstadter called in a famous 1964 article the "paranoid style of American politics," the most celebrated 20th-century version of which arguably was Republican senator Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt against Communists inside the U.S. government.

But there are countless other examples that could be drawn from U.S. history of this "style" and its impact on politics that have been fiercely partisan since the first debates between Federalists and Republicans.

The good news for Mr. Obama, of course, is that the more the Republican Party sells its intellectual soul to the right-wingers, and the more it listens to those within the closed loop, the better the President's long-term political chances, whatever the ups and downs of today's polls.

He was handed a mess by the Bush administration - two wars, fiscal deficits, future unfunded liabilities for Social Security and health care, and a crumpled image of the U.S. almost everywhere.

Politically, it has been easy to look good after George W. Bush, the worst American president since Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln's successor. Substantively, it has been hard to figure out how to clean up the mess. Then came the recession, the worst downdraft of the U.S. economy since 1930.

Mr. Obama, of course, has disappointed some of his more liberal supporters, and predictably enraged the right. And a certain revisionism appears to be taking hold, a hankering after the supposed decisiveness of Bill Clinton's first year that was, in historical fact, largely an organizational bust.

Mr. Obama's greatest threat comes not from accusations of dithering or from the right-wing screamers, but from the immense scale of his country's future problems, including wars, deficits and debts, and whether Americans are willing to seriously face all or any of them.

Report Typo/Error

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular