Few presidents have successfully re-shaped American myths. Myth-busting involves trying to change citizens’ core perceptions of our nation. Such risky ventures erode presidential popularity.
To most people, the word myth suggests a fictional tale. After peering at a glowing moon, we share with youngsters a familiar made-up story. We tell of a mythical “Man in the Moon.”
In contrast, scholars research stories about our individual or collective identities. These myths, because they shape our character and behavior, are difficult to correct.
President Obama has tried to replace three hallowed American myths. He’s paid dearly for it. The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll taken in early August reports Americans’ approval of the president’s foreign-policy record fell to 36 percent. His overall job performance took a hit, too. Only 40 percent of citizens give him thumbs-up, the worst personal favorability-rating in his presidency.
It’s tough to re-cast popular myths. The Apostle Paul warned Christians about people who spurned “listening to the truth and (continued to) wander into myths” (II Timothy 4:4). Some stoned Paul. Others imprisoned him. Still more wished him dead.
President Obama’s second-term popularity has eroded because he exploded three national myths. Republicans fussed. They hurled rejoinders at the president, bristling with partisan worry. Using the same tired arguments their predecessors uncorked against President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936, Republicans then and now have tried to protect three popular American myths. Like President Obama, FDR at his first re-election in 1936 suffered a dip in popularity.
Channeling FDR, Obama stands for three myths shaping our national identity: We’re in it together; government is part of the solution; and, building world coalitions achieves power. These convictions replace three Republican shop-worn myths: If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me; get government off our backs; and, U.S. firepower thumps foreign enemies.
WE’RE IN IT TOGETHER
President Obama dismantled the myth of the self-made American who unilaterally builds successful corporations. Critics cringed at his 2012 assertion that founders didn’t solely build successful businesses. They needed roads government laid to truck in supplies and depended on banks for loans. An eagle flies solo, but Americans band together to succeed.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt battled strong headwinds in his second term because he mocked the Republican myth of a party composed of self-made Americans. A Sept. 1, 1935, Gallop poll reported that FDR’s popularity plunged to 50.5 percent, after being hailed as America’s savior when taking office in 1933 during the depths of the Great Depression.
Historian Michael Hiltzik writes how FDR irked Republicans who imagined Americans acting independently, such as Davy Crockett. “The Revenue Act of 1935 would recognize that ‘wealth in the modern world does not come merely from individual effort …. The people in the mass have inevitably helped to make large fortunes possible (Roosevelt declared).’ Rather mischievously, FDR quoted Andrew Carnegie, certainly an industrialist hero: ‘Where wealth accrues honorably, the people are always silent partners’” (“The New Deal: a Modern History”).
GOVERNMENT IS PART OF THE SOLUTION
Presidents Obama and FDR take it on the chin from critics for recognizing government as a key player in strong economies. Market forces aren’t magically corrective. Nor is greed checked when Wall Street goes unregulated. The poor need a bigger helping hand than what religious soup kitchens and altruistic citizens supply.
Republicans sided in 1936 with FDR’s early supporter, columnist Walter Lippmann. He wrote in a draft that FDR’s brand of energetic government, modeled after Alexander Hamilton, would shrivel American freedom because of “waste, confusion, bureaucratic rigidity and the loss of personal liberty.” Similar rhetorical battles rage today between the GOP and President Obama.
Roosevelt shot back in his acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic convention. He fired at the hearts of “the economic royalists of the economic order … (who) denied that the government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and live.” FDR delivered a lethal shot at capitalists’ anti-government myth, proclaiming “our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of (big business) power.”
WORLD COALITIONS BUILD U.S. POWER
President Obama builds on benefits when adapting to a world that don’t involve U.S. military force. He’s willing to sacrifice short-term success for long-term benefits accrued in talks with adversaries. He espouses negotiation rather than hurling bellicose threats.
“Apparently, people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on Earth, still does not control everything around the world, and so our diplomatic efforts often take time,” the president declared at a recent news conference. “That’s the nature of world affairs. It’s not neat, and it’s not smooth.”
Republicans turned isolationist in the 1930s. They regarded the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as buffers protecting America. Prior to World War II, FDR built a coalition with Winston Churchill, which Republicans attacked as pushing our nation into a far-away war.
When anxiety spreads over a slowly-rebounding economy, fighting erupts in the Ukraine and Gaza, and refugees cross U.S. southern borders, it’s easy to settle for old myths. Recasting them to fit global challenges is essential, even if unpopular.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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