Obama's Symbolic Blunder

The Obama campaign's latest faux pas has come and gone  (to the relief of almost everybody) with the decision to retire the "pre-presidential"seal. This is one of those incidents marked by questions that will never be answered, such as what could the campaign have possibly been thinking, and what is the appropriate punishment for whoever came up with the idea?

To these we can add a third: who thought it was smart to channel FDR, Obama himself, or one of the peons? NRA Eagle
Obama seal

It's been completely overlooked (as far as I've seen, anyway) that a direct inspiration for the seal was the public symbol for one of Franklin D. Roosevelt's greatest policy disasters. An eagle, a blue background: Blue Eagle. Which happens to have been the emblem of the National Recovery Administration, FDR's attempt to beat the Depression by collectivizing the U.S. economy.

The NRA was the centerpiece of the "Hundred Days", FDR's whirlwind law-passing spree following his inauguration. It was the work of "brain trusters" Rexford G. Tugwell and Adolf Berle, adapted directly from Mussolini's "corporative" system.

The NRA attempted to "organize" the U.S. economy from the largest corporations to the smallest Mom n' Pop store. Businesses were encouraged to sign up with the proviso that they would be able to write their own rules for their industries, effectively turning them into cartels. Member businesses were allowed to place the Blue Eagle in their windows, along with the slogan "We Do Our Part".

Businesses were required to pay minimum wage, abandon child labor, and adapt wage and price controls. As for businesses that held out... well, the NRA was run by an ex-general, Hugh Johnson, who, to put it kindly, was not Colin Powell. Johnson took the Mussolini connection to heart, declaring all businesses not displaying the Blue Eagle to be "enemies of the people", and encouraging the public to boycott them, if not worse.

But it was even more dangerous for companies that signed up. Businessmen were jailed for breaking NRA rules, and goon squads roamed the streets of Manhattan looking for violators The story is told in detail in Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascim. The Secret History of the American Left and Amity Shlae's The Forgotten Man. A New History of the Great Depression

How this nonsense was supposed to end the Depression is anybody's guess. In short order, it ran afoul of the Supreme Court, which on May 27, 1935, found the NRA illegal in Schechter Poultry Corporation v. United States, the so-called "sick chicken" case. The Court struck down the NRA as an unconstitutional extension of executive power. Roosevelt was forced to drastically modify his plans for the economy. (Not to mention waste the next two years on his notorious "court-packing"scheme.)

But the major point as far as the Obama campaign is concerned lies in the fact that the NRA -- along with all of FDR's collectivist policies -- was a complete failure. Centralization and planning gave the economy a brief kick, but one that lasted only months. By 1937 unemployment was higher than it had been when Roosevelt took office four years earlier. By the New Year's he was reduced to pleading to his cabinet, "Won't somebody tell me what to do?" It required WW II to pull the U.S. out of its tailspin.

So what kind of campaign picks one of its party's greatest disasters for use as a symbol? Seeking a connection with Roosevelt is understandable, but why not the Roosevelt of the war years, rather than the bumbling and inept rookie president of the 30s? The answer is probably simple ignorance. In which case Obama is lucky that the media (similarly uninformed) missed the connection and spared him that much extra adverse commentary. But he's relying all too often on luck to ease the way for him.

The Hungarian-American historian John Lukacs (no relation to the Marxist theoretician Georg Lukacs) has warned us on several occasions to be careful how we select our symbols. Symbols, Lukacs tells us, mean something because we think they do, and they tend to have lives of their own. If we select one that reflects badly on us, or one whose meaning can betray us, it can have repercussions all out of proportion to the actual source. (Curiously, one of the examples Lukacs gives also involves an eagle: the double-headed imperial eagle that fell to the ground at Austro-Hungarian emperor Karl's coronation in1916. Two years later, the empire was extinct, and Karl was the emperor of nobody.)

In choosing an emblem of arrogance, incompetence, and failure for his "seal", Obama has told us a number of things about himself that he probably would rather we didn't know. We should heed the warning.

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.
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