What unfortunately also hasn’t changed much is our tradition of verbal savaging even the best of our presidents. This began in the early years of the republic. The Aurora, then a well-known publication in Philadelphia, on March 4, 1797, summed up George Washington’s eight years in office by asserting that he had carried “his designs against liberty so far as to have put in jeopardy its very existence.” (The italics are the editorialist’s).

Abraham Lincoln was described by C. Chauncey Burr of New York in 1864 as “the gorilla tyrant who has usurped the Presidential chair.” To be sure, this was in the run-up to a fratricidal Civil War that claimed the lives of more than 600,000 Americans, and rhetorical excess was to be expected. But there was no similar basis for the relentless calumny against FDR that went on throughout the 12 years of his presidency. Typical of the tone was one of several attacks written by Merle Thorpe, a frequent anti-FDR commentator of the time, in The Nation’s Business: “We have given legislative status, either in whole or in part, to eight of the ten points of the Communist Manifesto of 1848 and . . . done a better job of implementation than Russia.” In his valuable book “The Coming of the New Deal,” historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. quotes a Republican congressman delivering a Lincoln’s Day address in 1934 in which he compared FDR unfavorably to Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini…

Look closely at the Obama advocacies for stimulus and health care and education reform and one sees the same animating impulse as the New Deal: security and a better life for all Americans. Whether or not Obama succeeds is at this point an open question, but I suspect that his opposition sees what he is about more clearly than Obama’s more impatient supporters. That’s why the opponents sound so much like the critics of the New Deal, which fell short of its bolder promises but nonetheless changed the lives of Americans for the better.