Obama, Reagan, and Huey Long: What has really changed in American Politics?

Senator Huey P. Long of Louisiana, half-length...

Image via Wikipedia

In his vote-harvesting season, it is important to reflect on the American political past to understand what has changed and what needs to be changed.  What connects these three men does not seem as obvious at first.  Reagan and Obama we can see connect because they are both presidents.  However, Long was never president.  So, what connects them? First, we need to know who Huey Long was.


Huey Long was a governor of Louisiana and a Senator from the same state. He was a powerful orator and a dynamic politician. He was born in 1893 and died in 1935) and was nicknamed.  Although he was only governor from 1928–1932 and a U.S. Senator from 1932 to 1935, he had a lasting effect on Louisiana as well the United States political scene.  Although his efforts died with him, his ideas lived on after him.  In particular, the strong populist message to his work struck a chord with the American public that even had Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then at the peak of his power, concerned about his work.

His approach to politics was unabashedly populist yet it reflected a time when populism was a viable alternative.  In the United States at that time, the discrepancy in wealth and the lack of a social welfare infrastructure made the thought of revolution possible.  Tyrants across Europe promised benefits to the public without revealing the dark underbelly of what was required to deliver those promises.  Long worked to redistribute the wealth within Louisiana and fought the major oil companies working within the state.

Now what does this have to do with Reagan and Obama?  What Long recommended in terms of “Share our Wealth” has happened in many ways within the United States.  Since Long’s death, the United States has initiated a number of social welfare programmes to address many of the underlying issues he raised.  Under Lyndon Johnson, the Great Society programmes transformed the social welfare framework opening up opportunities and programmes for large numbers of Americans. At the same time, the government became more deeply involved in the American society.

Reagan came to office with a strong conservative record and equally powerful rhetorical skill.  Although not populist in the way of Long, he touched the lives of ordinary Americans and their problems.  He promised to renew America by reducing the government burden in both taxes and regulations.  His inaugural address was famous for the phrase that the government was the problem.

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

When he said that Americans knew what he meant.  In this he was touching on a populist sentiment that Long would have appreciated.  He was standing up for the American people, the small guy, and saying his role was to protect the small guy against the power of the state.

What people fail to remember is that he also promised something else.  He would not do away with government, even though it was the problem.

Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work — work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back.

In this, he was setting the stage for his administration, which would attempt to cut the government’s role in the lives of the American people.  Yet, he was also setting forth a theme that Obama would reaffirm.

When Obama came to office, his vow to change America electrified the electorate.  In his inaugural speech, he set forth a statement similar to Reagan’s theme.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.

What he was expressing was the idea that the defining standard for the government was whether it was effective or delivering. Instead of exploring what the government’s role and status is, he was accepting its role and status.  In a sense, he missed Reagan’s Farewell Address.

Ours was the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly reversed the course of government, and with three little words: “We the People.” “We the People” tell the government what to do; it doesn’t tell us. “We the People” are the driver; the government is the car, and we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast. Almost all the world’s constitutions are documents in which governments tell the people what their privileges are. Our Constitution is a document in which “We the People” tell the government what it is allowed to do. “We the People” are free. This belief has been the underlying basis for everything I’ve tried to do these past 8 years.

In this Reagan, was harkening back to Long’s spirit, but he was also recognising the immutable changes within America.  The government’s role is larger and more involved since Long spoke.  We have state pensions, we have redistribution of wealth through social welfare, and we have government funded educational programmes.  In all of this, up to Reagan, we have the belief that the government is only an agent of the people doing what the people want.  Yet, what is now clear, especially since Long’s speech and since Reagan, is the government has become an actor.

The question for Obama, the next presidential election, and future presidents, is what is the government to do?  In many ways, Obama has inherited Regan’s legacy in much the same way that Reagan inherited Long’s legacy and changed it.  Obama came to office in an America that had believed that government had been controlled and had been restrained.  As Reagan said, he had hoped to remind people that only when government is limited are they free.

And I hope we have once again reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: “As government expands, liberty contracts.”

Obama’s inaugural called us to service, called us to responsibility, and called us to a new citizenship.  Yet, he did not reaffirm or reassert the role of the government as servant of the people.   If the government no longer is the public’s servant and acts in its own interests, how can we, the people, remain free?  Perhaps we, the American public, have learned the lessons taught by Huey Long too well.  Perhaps Obama is unable or unwilling to challenge the American people to a new populism to revise the social welfare infrastructure within the United States and reaffirm the government’s role as servant of the people.

Whatever happens in the next election, Obama’s farewell address will tell us as much about his administration’s past as it will about our future.  Reagan’s farewell speech was connected to the promises of his inaugural address.  Obama’s inaugural set forth a vision of a responsible citizens, of service, of duty.  What remains to be seen though is whether that responsibility, service, and duty can renew America without reasserting the proper relationship between we the people, and the government. Will we be able to keep a limited government that is of the people, by the people, and for the people? Alternatively, is it that Huey Long’s shadow means that government is destined to increase to feed the populist appetites within the American public?  Obama has called us to service, and it is for him to deliver the changes in government needed to fulfil the promises of the new citizenship.

We have a choice and we must choose wisely because it will decide our fate.  Either we can reassert the proper relationship between the citizen and the government to revive our liberty or we can allow the government to expand throughout our lives and reduce our liberty.  How will Obama’s legacy answer that question?

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
This entry was posted in Government, occupy wall street, public sector, republicanism, statesmanship and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.