MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow argued last week “the last time any president did this much in office, booze was illegal,” with “nothing this big happening since FDR.” Maddow’s assessment was prompted by last week's deal on Wall Street reform, and she cited many other Obama accomplishments. Yet many progressives would disagree with Maddow. They argue that Obama has not been the “transformative” president that his campaign promised, and is an “incrementalist,” not a game-changer like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Why revisit the Obama-FDR comparison? Because it forces activists to consider a President’s capacity to bring progressive change outside the unique setting of the 1930’s, and to assess whether it makes sense to measure today’s politicians by FDR’s standard.

Barack Obama is proving an extraordinarily complex leader at a time when snap assessments are the rule in national politics. Obama claims he is simply doing what he said he would do – but his inaction on such issues as immigration reform and the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), and his backroom deal to delete the public option from the health care bill, has led many progressives to doubt his desire to bring transformative change.

This has led many to bemoan that Obama “is no FDR.” FDR’s publicly stated desire to be hated by big bankers, Wall Street, and Republicans is often contrasted with Obama’s reaching out to these groups – and his obsession with “bipartisanship.”

I’ve been among those who feel Obama has not lived up to FDR’s legacy, which is why I was struck by Rachel Maddow’s effort last week to place our President as the most transformative since FDR. Maddow has not hesitated to criticize Obama on Afghanistan and other issues, so her elevation of the President’s accomplishments cannot be easily dismissed and warrants further analysis.

Far Different Historical Times

FDR took office in March 1933 with more than a third of the nation unemployed. He had strong Congressional majorities, and only the Supreme Court could limit his plans.

33%-plus unemployment creates a much different political environment than the official 10%-plus under which Obama’s presidency began. The 1930’s were an era when desperate times demanded unprecedented actions, creating widespread national backing for FDR’s employment programs that has never existed during the Obama presidency.

Progressives who criticized the size and shape of Obama’s early stimulus package saw last week how Republicans will not even extend aid for the unemployed. FDR did not face such political obstacles.

The 1930’s saw recently arrived European immigrants helping build social movements, particularly the labor movement. While Obama’s 2008 campaign had a movement-like quality, and activists continued grassroots mobilizing around health care in 2009, the Obama years have not seen anything close to the social upheavals and foments that facilitated FDR’s push for progressive change.

Structural Obstacles to Change

During the presidential campaign, left critics of Obama focused on his moderate positions on various issues, and a passion for bipartisanship and acceptance of incremental reforms. The entire focus was on the President, and whether he had the political skills and convictions to enact a progressive agenda.

Overlooked was the possibility that Obama could not implement progressive changes because he would lack a filibuster-proof Senate majority.

FDR’s progressive program did not face legislative obstacles. And when legislative opposition emerged – as occurred with attacks on the Federal Theater Program – FDR often relented.

Of course, Obama has taken many actions – such as escalating the endless war in Afghanistan – that cannot be blamed on the Senate’s legislative obstacles. And even the health reform bill is not as significant as the civil rights laws enacted under Lyndon Johnson, who also signed Medicare and initiated the federal programs incorporated into the War on Poverty.

But while Johnson’s accomplishments were more dramatic than Obama’s, they were fewer and did not cover as many areas. I think that’s why Maddow harkened back to FDR, rather than the Great Society’s creator.

Contrasting Public Support

FDR greatly enhanced the Democratic Party’s base in his first two years, galvanizing public support for his programs. In contrast, President Obama is less popular today than when he took office – despite his many accomplishments.

The reason for FDR’s popularity is that he was perceived as doing everything possible to get Americans back to work. Whether due to Republican intransigence, his race or increasingly critical attitudes toward all Presidents, Obama is not viewed in this way.

That’s why the calculator approach to evaluating Obama’s presidency misses the big picture. He’s been incredibly successful at passing key legislation, but has yet to even convince much of his base that he is transforming the nation.

Obama may eventually accomplish this, and the implementation of various parts of the health care bill later this year will help. But what pundits see as “big things happening” is quite different from the perception of the average voter, and FDR did a far better job of getting people to understand how he was improving their lives.

Randy Shaw is also the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.