Looking back on Barack Obama’s first post-election interview with “60 Minutes,” no one should be surprised that he admitted he’s reading about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office. In fact, the president-elect — evidently taking no chances — is reportedly reading two books: Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope and Jean Edward Smith’s FDR.
As he told “Sixty Minutes,” his administration will emulate FDR’s “willingness to try things and experiment… If something doesn’t work, [we’re] gonna try something else until [we] find something that does.” That’s one reason Obama, like FDR, has claimed that he wants advisors who will offer him a wide variety of viewpoints.
Not too wide, however. In his first hundred days, Roosevelt made it clear that he — like Obama — considered himself a reformer, but distinctly not a radical. He certainly didn’t intend to use the economic crisis of 1932 to create a society of full economic equality and social justice. He just wanted to make sure that every American had at least a bare minimum of economic security.
FDR’s overriding goal was, in reality, to head off movements for fundamental change. As he wrote privately before he became president, it was “time for the country to become fairly radical,” but only “for a generation” — because “history shows that where this occurs occasionally, nations are saved from revolution.”
“There will be a gain throughout our country of communistic thought,” Roosevelt also warned, “unless we can keep democracy up to its old ideals and its original purposes.” Years later, he would boast that his greatest achievement was saving the capitalist system.
Obama ended his “Sixty Minutes” interview on a similar note: “Our basic principle that this is a free market system and that that has worked for us, that it creates innovation and risk taking, I think that’s a principle that we’ve gotta hold to.” Though he talks about the benefits of “spreading the wealth around,” like his famous predecessor, he most certainly doesn’t want to spread it too fast or too far, nor does his team of economic advisers.
But the president-elect may be reading the wrong history. Perhaps, instead of reading about Roosevelt’s first hundred days, he should read Chapter 16 of Smith’s FDR, which describes how growing political pressure kept Roosevelt looking over his left shoulder. By 1934, new labor organizations like the Congress of Industrial Organizations, charismatic leaders like Louisiana’s Governor Huey Long, and social innovators like California physician Francis Townsend were offering concrete plans to spread the wealth far faster and wider than Roosevelt’s New Deal ever would. Continuing economic catastrophe, fused with the mood of hope and change that he himself had stirred up, gave rise to the threat that the president might be unseated if he did not move leftwards.
Consummate politician that he was, Roosevelt did move — just far enough to ensure his reelection. In the 1936 campaign, he ratcheted up the rhetoric, fiercely attacking the “economic royalists” who controlled the “corporations, banks, and securities.” It was the kind of language that would please any 2008 progressive. He decried the injustice of a country where more than half the wealth was controlled by less than 200 big corporations, all tied together by interlocking directorates and banks. This small group, he insisted, had established “a new industrial dictatorship” — far stronger words than we’re used to today — with “an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor — other people’s lives.” To Americans, FDR pledged to master these “economic royalists” who held the public in “economic slavery.”
In the most important speech of the campaign, he promised to “increase wages that spell starvation… wipe out sweatshops… provide useful work for the needy unemployed… end monopoly in business… protect the consumer against unnecessary price spreads, against the costs that are added by monopoly and speculation… support collective bargaining… work for the regulation of security issues… for the wiping out of slums.” For all these things, FDR exclaimed, “and for a multitude of things like them we have only just begun to fight.”
That 1936 campaign is the history both a politically canny president-elect and progressives should be reading right now. It would remind him, and teach us, that a centrist president can be pushed, under the pressure of tough times and rising public hopes, in our direction — if, that is, we are dedicated, well-organized, and persistent enough. Under pressure, Roosevelt moved an agenda that, in 1932, sounded radical indeed into the respectable center of American politics only four years later.
It was the kind of agenda that many liberal or even centrist Americans came to support by 1936. Today, polling data show that a majority of Americans who call themselves liberal or centrist agree with many of the most prominent progressive stances of this moment, including
- paying higher taxes to receive more government services;
- substantial increases in taxes on corporations and the rich;
- strict controls on the financial investment market;
- significant public expenditures to guarantee universal health care, provide higher education for all who want it, and promote renewable energy technologies;
- dramatic steps to preserve and improve the environment;
- the replacing of free trade policies with fair trade policies;
- vigorously protecting reproductive rights.
The overriding problem for progressives is that so many voters will reject a candidate or a movement promoting this kind of progressive platform, even though they agree individually with most of that candidate’s or that movement’s policy positions. If that is to change in a way Americans can believe in, and so push President Barack Obama in new directions, we have to be politically smarter.
The Hopes and Fears of Voters
So here’s a lesson we can learn from Roosevelt’s 1936 campaign. To gain his landslide victory, he certainly won over millions of voters already to his left. But he also kept the votes of many more millions not prepared to imagine that they were moving leftwards. Obama, too, won crucial votes from people significantly more conservative than he is — not just because the economy collapsed, but because he had a canny sense of how to take advantage of that “opportunity.”
The challenge for progressives is to do the same: to use the sense of open-ended possibility sparked by Obama’s victory to push the electorate — and thus the Obama administration — further than it now is willing to go. But here’s the most important thing: all our facts and logical arguments alone won’t be enough to do the job.
We have to understand as well what top-notch politicians like Roosevelt and Obama grasp intuitively: When people lose their economic hope, they feel insecure not only about their jobs and their bank accounts, but about everything in their lives. The same uncertainty that may make them suddenly welcome a spirit of political change also can lead to an unbearable sense of being unsettled. In that situation, many people long for “a sense of continuity and stability that is unavailable in economic life,” as Obama recently put it.
The president-elect knows, as FDR knew, that a successful politician must respond to voters’ fears as well as hopes. Both in the early 1930s and today, the winning presidential candidates sensed that any politician or movement that seemed to symbolize not just change, but overly rapid and unsettling change, would have a tough time getting public approval, no matter what policies were being promoted.
Obama has been nothing short of brilliant at communicating a message of continuity and a promise of stability, even as he was leading chants of “Yes, we can!” He did so more by his style than by substance. He created an image of a dynamic leader who could “change the world” while remaining safe and solid, poised and unflappable, a man never likely to do anything rash or impulsive. That’s a rare gift which few of us can hope to emulate.
We can, however, learn from him and from Roosevelt, who used words even more skillfully than Obama to offer a reassuring sense of stability. Roosevelt was successful in shifting the center further left, in part by embedding his innovations in an old narrative, effectively couching every new policy in a blanket of traditional values and reassuring cultural images. In the process, he managed to make his leftward shift sound like a huge step into the past, not into a dark and unknowable future.
Consider just a few examples from his 1936 campaign speeches:
- “This concentration of economic power in all-embracing corporations does not represent private enterprise as we Americans cherish it.”
- “Now, as always, for over a century and a half, the Flag, the Constitution, stand against… the over-privileged.”
- “[The] war against want and destitution [is] a war for the survival of democracy… to preserve the American ideal of economic as well as political democracy.”
Typically quoting Thomas Jefferson, FDR insisted that “widespread poverty and concentrated wealth cannot long endure side by side in a democracy,” and that “freedom is no half-and-half affair… The average citizen… must have equal opportunity in the marketplace.” He evoked the tradition of Americans as God’s chosen people, as the pivot of history itself, to legitimate his economic program when he famously proclaimed, “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”
Having won reelection with a deft combination of progressive economics and patriotic pieties, Roosevelt embellished both in his second inaugural address with the moralizing language that came so naturally to him. Pointing to “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” he called for “the establishment of a morally better world… a nation uncorrupted by cancers of injustice… We reconsecrate our country to long-cherished ideals in a suddenly changed civilization… We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics… We all go up, or else we all go down, as one people.”
Claiming a Heritage
The point of all this history is not simply to praise Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although his domestic policies did a lot of lasting good, he was a centrist and a pragmatist, always ready to sacrifice an ideal to win a political victory. And he would sacrifice plenty, delivering far less than he promised after his stunning victory in 1936, when he swept Republican candidate Alf Landon in 46 of the 48 states. It’s certainly possible that Barack Obama will do much the same.
The point, however, is to learn from these shrewd politicians that, in a time of uncertainty when no one knows for sure what political path the nation will follow, every policy option actually lies open, from the far right to the far left. Those of us who tend to take the left fork could bring surprisingly large numbers of people with us — many of them new to our road — if we were willing to use a language that offered a genuine promise of cultural continuity and stability underneath the economic and political change we promote.
It’s not just socially conservative working-class whites that need to be appealed to, but voters who already see themselves as center-left or even liberal, but not that liberal, not yet ready to opt for a truly progressive candidate.
There are endless ways to do this, but FDR’s speeches of 1936 offer especially fruitful examples. Of course, as Obama said, “For us to simply recreate what existed back in the Thirties in the twenty-first century would be missing the boat. We’ve gotta come up with solutions that are true to our times and true to this moment. And that’s gonna be our job.”
As progressives, our job is to learn from Obama and FDR the political and rhetorical skills to push back against whatever array of centrist (or right-centrist) compromises the new administration is bound to make. If we do that effectively, we can capitalize on the new mood of possibility amid a landscape of increasing desolation and so push the nation toward lasting structures of economic justice.
It’s also our job to move the administration and the public toward peace, demilitarization, and an end to the foreign policy of empire — which, of course, began with FDR. In the latter years of his presidency, he used the language of patriotism, cultural tradition, and moral values to get a vast majority of Americans to embrace a foreign policy they had never dreamed they would support: entangling alliances to promote an American-led system of global corporate capitalism and the beginnings of a huge permanent national (in)security state to defend that system.
For years now, polls have shown that most Americans are willing to roll back the most harmful of the policies that FDR initiated in the midst of a global war. They would support major reductions in the military budget and in the U.S. military presence abroad. They would favor a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations. And yet they might well not favor a candidate who took just those stands. Again, it all depends on how those policy changes are presented.
We proponents of peace and economic justice should not use words we don’t believe in. But we are in fact moved by deeply moral commitments, though we don’t claim to possess the absolute moral truth (and recognize, in fact, that those who make such claims pose a threat to democracy). Why not say all of that loud and clear, over and over again? It’s a language Americans of every stripe tend to respond to.
Since we’ll be reiterating what some Americans of stature in every generation have said, why not proudly claim their words as our national heritage?
As for patriotism: A fundamental mistake that radicals and antiwar protesters made in the 1960s was to sew the flag to the seat of their pants rather than carrying it high and proud at the front of every protest march. Radicals then should have presented themselves as the truest patriots (which indeed they were). Instead, they helped get their political views firmly entrenched in the mainstream media — and the public mind — as symbols of anti-Americanism and a threat to every kind of cultural stability.
Now the gathering economic storm and a linked mood of open-ended possibility give us a chance to correct that mistake. That’s why we should study the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt even more closely than the president-elect does. If Obama prefers to read about the first hundred days in 1933, we should leap ahead of him and begin studying the last days of that first Roosevelt term — a page out of the past that points to a possible future, where Obama must give progressives the change we hope for. Let FDR’s rhetorical style be one guide to our future, as well as the new president’s.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Having written extensively on Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and George W. Bush, he is now writing a book tentatively titled “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Origins of the National Insecurity State.” He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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