My grandmother thought Franklin D. Roosevelt was the greatest president this country ever had. She believed he was truly "for the people," and that he saved the nation with his New Deal. I disagreed with her then, though it is perhaps because I had the luxury of 70 years of hindsight and not having lived through the Great Depression that I was able to do so.
I disagree with her even more, now. (Don't send me a lightning bolt, Gran.) Seeing the degree to which the pyramid schemes put in place in the 1930s have been used as stepping stones for programs like Obamacare is a bit disturbing. Welfare and Social Security were not sustainable, and Roosevelt must have had some inkling this would be the case, because he attacked banks and removed the country from the gold standard in order to facilitate the later printing of money that would be necessary.
But I am willing to buy that Roosevelt genuinely believed he was doing something good for the country, and that its citizens would use the hand out as a hand up, not as a crutch. After all, he was looking at the Greatest Generation. Folks like Gran could be counted on to use only as little assistance as was necessary, and to remove themselves from the government drip as quickly as possible, in order to soothe their consciences.
Roosevelt was dealing, by and large, with a nation of proud people who worked hard and valued personal accountability. Many of them were also less politically informed than those of us who today can look up the gross domestic product of France with a few keystrokes. Those Americans were in the thick of fighting to save the world, and did not see, as we can now, that World War II had more to do with ending the Great Depression than Roosevelt's New Deal.
But President Barack Obama can see. He knows exactly what contortions Congress must go through each year to try to keep entitlement programs afloat, and that someday - probably closer than we all want - the can that has been kicked down the road too many times will hit a wall and bounce back in our faces.
In 1940, welfare expenditures hit 2.1 percent of GDP in the U.S. Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" really fed Americans' growing addiction to entitlement programs, so that by the 1980s, welfare spending was bouncing between 3 and 4 percent of GDP. And by that time, the Greatest Generation was collecting on its Social Security I.O.U., though those numbers paled in comparison to the dip Baby Boomers will take out of the system. By 2010, welfare spending had reached a peak of 4.75 percent of GDP.
Obama knows these numbers. He knows what has happened to Americans as a culture because of the welfare state. He knows spending on France's vaunted social protection program has reached a mind-blowing 30 percent of GDP.
And, Obama knows since 2008, the number of people who are able to identify themselves as middle class in this country has fallen by nearly 20 percent. Conversely, the number of people who identify themselves as lower or lower-middle class has risen to 40 percent from 25 percent in 2008.
Obama is a well-educated man who, by this point, has enough political experience, and has spent enough time with intelligent advisers that he surely can take a look at what has happened to generations of Americans since the New Deal and understand that expanding the degree to which citizens are depending on federal coffers is a terrible idea.
But he keeps pushing. He keeps extending deadlines and bending the law. Just this week I got letters from each of the health insurance companies with which I have dealt in the past several years, documenting my continuous coverage, so that I would be spared any penalty in case someone came asking. At least the New Deal was not compulsory.
To borrow a well-worn phrase, Obama already knows his agenda is "unconstitutional and unsustainable," but he has succeeded in taking it so far that it may be too late to turn around. I don't really know why. But if he thinks he's building himself up to be revered as the next FDR, he couldn't be more wrong.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org