Skip to main content
obama girl lincoln

White House photo: Pete Souza

No matter who the Republicans nominate to run against Barack Obama, it seems clear that we’ll have a kind of presidential contest we haven’t seen in more than seventy-five years: a referendum on the government’s proper role in economic life. the mass media are already framing it as a contest between the super-rich and the rest of us. If the GOP picks Mitt Romney, as seems most likely, the candidates themselves will offer us a choice between heart and soul.

Romney announces himself as the savior of “the soul of America ... a free and prosperous land of opportunity,” where everyone can pursue their own individual prosperity to the hilt, unfettered by higher taxes and “job-killing regulations.” Government serves best, he argues, when it gets out of the way so that innovators and entrepreneurs can fulfill the nation’s economic potential.

Obama presents himself as champion of “the promise that's at the very heart of America,” as he said in his Osawatamie speech: “this is a place where you can make it if you try. in his State of the Union address he elaborated on that “basic American promise ... if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement. The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive.” His answer involves governmental activity on a wide variety of fronts.

The last time a presidential campaign centered on these two starkly opposed visions was 1936. It seems natural, then, that comparisons between Obama and Franklin D. Roosevelt, so commonly heard four years ago, will once again flood the media. Whatever valid comparisons there may be, though, it’s more instructive to focus on the crucial difference between the two.

When FDR stood up in Philadelphia to accept his party’s nomination in 1936, he recalled that, on the first day of his presidency, he had famously called for a fight against “fear itself.” Now, he proclaimed, “We have conquered fear.” Yet he did not claim that he’d won a total victory in the revolutionary war he had begun in 1933.

He noted that the original American Revolution had been a victory over political royalists. But “freedom is no half-and-half affair,” he now said; it requires economic as well as political liberty. So freedom could survive only by defeating the economic “royalists”—those we in 2012 call “the 1 percent”—who “denied that the government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live.” And he closed by promising, “I am enlisted for the duration of the war.”

Barack Obama could comfortably say all of these words. Yet FDR went on to explain himself in words that suggested something quite different from Obama’s stated vision and goal: FDR described the battle he enlisted in as “a war against want and destitution and economic demoralization.”

The history of his New Deal policies as well as the speech itself suggest that he meant these three as virtually synonymous terms. This war had been the heart of the New Deal since his first days in office. It aimed to provide what we’ve come to call a safety net to protect all Americans against abject poverty, so that none would lose the last shred of hope of meeting their basic needs.

It was not inevitable that this would be Roosevelt’s goal. In the earliest days of his first administration he was urged by the more radical of his “Brain Trust” to aim higher, to use the power of government to assure a fully comfortable life from cradle to grave for every American. his close advisor Rexford Tugwell called it “a vision of villages and clean small factories.” Historian William Leuchtenberg later described it as the New Deal’s “Heavenly City: the greenbelt town, clean, green, and white, with children playing in light, airy, spacious schools.”

But Roosevelt demurred. He knew that he won the public’s confidence best when he acted not to initiate great long-term transformations but merely to stave off immediate disaster. So he chose to become (in historian Ellis Hawley’s words) “a new crisis manager rather than a leader committed to building a new order.” Preventing economic crisis for the nation by preventing abject poverty for each individual would be the New Deal’s goal. The watchword became, not “prosperity,” but only “security.”

As Tugwell lost influence, Harry Hopkins became Roosevelt’s most trusted advisor. Hopkins urged his staff to develop “a complete ticket to provide security for all the folks of this country up and down and across the board.” Another aide called the New Deal “a real people’s movement getting at the heart of the great modern problem, insecurity—insecurity in jobs and insecurity in feelings.”

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

FDR reaffirmed this strategy in his Philadelphia speech when he declared war on “want and destitution and economic demoralization.” he went on to endorse his party platform’s promise of “protection of the family and the home, the establishment of a democracy of opportunity, and aid to those overtaken by disaster.” his advisors’ words and his New Deal policies suggest that the democracy of opportunity took second place on their priority list to protection against disaster.

To be sure, like his “cousin Teddy,” he wanted to give every American an equal chance in the economic race. Unlike Teddy, though, he was most concerned to make sure that even the worst losers did not lose absolutely everything.

It is instructive that, when Barack Obama wanted to announce the basic themes of his re-election campaign, he did not go to Philadelphia. He went to Osawatamie, where “Cousin Teddy” had famously articulated his “New Nationalism.” Yet Obama’s program is fundamentally different from those of both Roosevelts.

Just as he makes TR’s theme of fairness secondary, so he says little about security and protection from abject poverty. The words “poor” and “poverty” played no role in Obama’s Osawatamie speech at all. When he spoke about security, he did not connect it with the destitute overtaken by disaster. He used the word “security” only to promise “restoring middle-class security” by creating “good jobs that pay well and offer middle-class security ... the basic security that helped millions of Americans reach and stay in the middle class.”

In his State of the Union address he used the word “poor” only once, to say that the rich and poor have an equal responsibility to serve the nation as a whole. the words “secure” and “security” appeared only in the context of foreign policy and “national security” issues, never in relation to economic issues at all. When it came to economics, as at Osawatamie, the focus was solely on the promise of middle-class comfort for all Americans.

The difference between FDR and Obama is explained partly by politics: In 1936, Roosevelt could claim to have brought the official unemployment rate down from 23.6 percent before he took office to 16.9 percent four years later. Of course, many more were uncounted or underemployed. in other words, poverty was still rampant. He needed the votes of the destitute and insecure, and he feared that if he did not stir them to support him they would follow other, more radical, leaders.

Obama knows that only a small fraction of voters are poor, and he can safely assume that a solid majority of them will vote for him. He has no political need to reach out to the poor. He is much more worried about the votes of middle-class workers who fear that their tax money is being given to the “undeserving poor.” So he has good political reasons to avoid any mention of the poor. He refers to them only indirectly as those who are “born with nothing” but “can”—not “might” or “may,” but surely “can” —attain a middle class life if they “work hard.” To be denied that chance, he exclaims, is “inexcusable.” Again, he offers them a promise, not merely of minimal security, but of genuine comfort.

Beneath that difference between the two presidents running for reelection lies a deeper one: Franklin Roosevelt’s successes. His New Deal did create the safety net that was its primary goal. And when he turned from economic to military war, his victory ushered in a global economic preeminence that afforded most Americans a lifestyle that could plausibly be called middle class.

At the deepest level, Roosevelt and Obama were offering two different mythic images of “the American dream” and America as a land of abundance. For FDR, Americans would prove that they were what historian David Potter called a “people of plenty” merely by insuring that none of them starved or froze to death. That’s not to say his policies actually prevented such tragic fates, especially among people of color. But his language defined America in terms of that mythic image.

Obama’s vision, on the other hand, sees America now having riches enough to keep everyone who “works hard and plays by the rules” permanently in middle-class comfort. Just as Roosevelt’s image was revolutionary in its day, so Obama’s is revolutionary now. “the American dream,” a mythic America where everyone can live a middle-class lifestyle, has a long prehistory. Many presidential candidates have conjured it up in glowing terms. But Obama is the first candidate to state this interpretation of our national myth so baldly, to make it so central to his campaign, and to stake his political career upon it.

ira chernus

If he sustains this rhetorical battle plan through Election Day and it proves victorious, regardless of what policies he pursues during his second term, the mythic meaning of “America” may never be the same again.

Ira Chernus

Republished with permission from the History News Network.