Harry Truman, now revered by conservatives, attacked "Republican gluttons of privilege" who had "stuck a pitchfork in the farmer's back" and favored "a return of the Wall Street economic dictatorship." He also nationalized the steel industry.
When steel companies raised prices, President John F. Kennedy fumed publicly, "My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed it until now." He responded by ordering wiretaps on the phones of executives.
But scorching populism exploiting mass envy is almost extinct in the Democratic Party. President Jimmy Carter didn't follow the tradition. Neither did Bill Clinton. Obama's cautious pragmatism makes him the despair of the Occupy Wall Street legions.
His proposed tax increases fall short of soaking the rich. Under FDR, the top individual income rate was 94 percent. Under Kennedy, it was 91 percent. Under Lyndon Johnson, it was 70 percent. Under Reagan, it was 50 percent. Obama, the blood-curdling class warrior, would make it 39.6 percent.
He reflects the evolution of his party, which favors a broad social safety net but accepts the need for largely free markets. Price controls, once beloved by Democrats, have long since ceased being an option. Breaking up big companies is off the table. But Republicans won't take "yes" for an answer.
If there were ever a time when hatred of rich capitalists and corporations would be expected, it's now, in the wake of a financial crisis and brutal economic downturn. If it's out there, though, it's not manifesting itself in White House policy.
Obama is unquestionably a liberal who believes in preserving the main surviving elements of the New Deal and the Great Society, such as Social Security, food stamps and Head Start. There is plenty to criticize in his economic program -- from misguided stimulus extravaganzas to the auto industry bailout to subsidies for expensive "green energy." But he's not the radical of right-wing mythology.
The reality should be plenty for his critics to worry about. When they read Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," they should remember the section of the bookstore where they found it: fiction.
Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman. To find out more about Steve Chapman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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