The battle over the Affordable Care Act, or ‘Obamacare’ as it has become known, has sparked the fight again between the parties and this battle draws many parallels with the events that occurred in 1935, with the passing of the Social Security Act.

That event had all of the drama that we see today. There were calls that it was a huge tax hike while also being called a socialist or communist program. It faced Republican and Democratic criticism saying that it would hurt small businesses, and an election occurred after the signing and before most of the legislation went into affect, leaving the population unsure as to the contents of the legislation.

With the ruling from the Supreme Court stating that the Affordable Care Act was constitutional because it could be considered a tax, many voices from the right rose up to show their displeasure of Chief Justice Roberts for siding with the liberal justices. Calls for repeal began soon after the Supreme Court decision and also for the impeachment of Chief Justice Roberts on the conservative blogosphere for betraying the conservative cause.

Freshman Senator Rand Paul, from Kentucky, came out quickly to denounce the decision by declaring that the law is still unconstitutional even if the Supreme Court ruled otherwise. “Just because a couple people on the Supreme Court declare something to be ‘constitutional’ does not make it so”, Paul offered in a statement. “The whole thing remains unconstitutional. While the court may have erroneously come to the conclusion that the law is allowable, it certainly does nothing to make this mandate or government takeover of our health care right.”

When asked what he would do to cover 30 million uninsured people, Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, also from Kentucky, responded, “That is not the issue. The question is, how can you go step by step to improve the American health care system? It is already the finest health care system in the world.”

“Let me tell you what we are not going to do,” McConnell concluded, “We are not going to turn the American health care system into a Western European system. That is exactly what is at the heart of “Obama-care.” They want to have the federal government take over all of American health care.”

Many Democrats have argued that when the public learns what the Affordable Care Act will do for them to lower insurance premiums, add protections from being dropped because of a preexisting condition or removing a lifetime cap on the amount of coverage provided and allowing children up to the age of 26 to remain on their parents insurance, they will be in favor of the legislation. They believe the Republicans have distorted the facts about the Affordable Care Act and that many Americans have decided the legislation is bad for the country because of the Republican efforts. Many Democrats also believe they did not do a good enough job of educating the public about the bill.

President Franklin Roosevelt and six other men in cabinet room Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZ62-93319
Similar attempts to discredit the Social Security Act occurred as well. Explaining the purpose of his future legislation to the public in a Fireside Chat given in June 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt stated:

A few timid people, who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing. Sometimes they will call it “Fascism,” sometimes “Communism,” sometimes “Regimentation,” sometimes “Socialism.” But, in so doing, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and very practical.

I believe in practical explanations and in practical policies. I believe that what we are doing today is a necessary fulfillment of what Americans have always been doing—a fulfillment of old and tested American ideals.

In the congressional elections of 1934, the democrats and liberals won both the Senate and the House by a large margin, and this gave FDR the political capital to push for a much more liberal direction in the last two years of his first term even though the Democrats controlled the majority in the House and Senate throughout his term. The Democrats controlled congress from 2009 to 2010 with the President, giving them a large Democratic majority to work to help pass legislation, so President Obama chose his first two years to take a gamble and push for universal healthcare.

However, the Democrats lost the House in 2010, so there are some differences to the occurrences of FDR’s time. On August 14, 1935, FDR signed the Social Security Act and the first payment was scheduled to take affect in January of 1937, after the election. This Act was disputed as the Affordable Care Act has been today and many of the same talking points being used then are being used again.

Alfred Landon, the 1936 Republican candidate for President, believed the legislation would be a burden to employers and employees, warning of the possibility the government might take worker’s money and never give it back.

Alfred Landon
Library of Congress
Prints and Photographs Division

He declared in his “I Will Not Promise the Moon” speech in September 26, 1936:

Do not forget this: such an excessive tax on payrolls is beyond question a tax on employment. In prosperous times it slows down the advance of wages and holds back re-employment. In bad times it increases unemployment, and unemployment breaks wage scales. The Republican party rejects any feature of any plan that hinders re-employment… …One more sample of the injustice of this law is this: Some workers who come under this new Federal insurance plan are taxed more and get less than workers who come under the State laws already in force.

Landon finished by saying, “I am not exaggerating the folly of this legislation. The saving it forces on our workers is a cruel hoax.” In a Chamber of Commerce statement in May 1935, it stated, “If the provisions of the bill now pending should be adopted, the country should realize that within a decade there will be a tax burden amounting to as much as $1 billion.”

FDR aggressively defended the legislation against his critics by using a populist, class warfare argument that he would be the people’s champion against those having predatory special interests that were hurting the masses.

In an October 31, 1936 speech at Madison Square Garden, FDR stated:

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred. I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

FDR further implied that the Republicans were not concerned with what the majority of the people were going through, especially those that had been hurting and needing government help. FDR continues:

Here and now I want to make myself clear about those who disparage their fellow citizens on the relief rolls. They say that those on relief are not merely jobless—that they are worthless. Their solution for the relief problem is to end relief—to purge the rolls by starvation. To use the language of the stock broker, our needy unemployed would be cared for when, as, and if some fairy godmother should happen on the scene.

You and I will continue to refuse to accept that estimate of our unemployed fellow Americans. Your Government is still on the same side of the street with the Good Samaritan and not with those who pass by on the other side.

President Roosevelt won in a landslide and afterwards, successive Republican Presidents did not try to repeal the legislation, because they worried the electorate had grown accustomed to having Social Security and that removing it could be a political disaster if attempted.

Library of Congress
Prints and Photographs Division

With calls of a massive tax increase and socialism, Democratic and Republican criticism of the legislation, and an election to decide the issue, history seems to be repeating itself again. It is not clear yet what direction the country wants to follow this time, but whatever the case, the events of the passing of the Social Security Act have a remarkable similarity with those of today.

In a campaign speech given in Philadelphia in 1936, FDR stated:

There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny. In this world of ours in other lands, there are some people, who, in times past, have lived and fought for freedom, and seem to have grown too weary to carry on the fight. They have sold their heritage of freedom for the illusion of a living. They have yielded their democracy. I believe in my heart that only our success can stir their ancient hope. They begin to know that here in America we are waging a war against want and destitution and economic demoralization. It is more than that; it is a war for the survival of democracy. We are fighting to save a great and precious form of government for ourselves and for the world.


Roosevelt addresses the nation, introducing the Social Security Act

FDR: Warning about today’s Republicans


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