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What a Second-Term Obama Can Learn From FDR
Official Presidential portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (Photo: Frank O. Salisbury)

What a Second-Term Obama Can Learn From FDR

Official Presidential portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (Photo: Frank O. Salisbury)

To achieve progress in his second term, President Obama must recognize that his opponents aren’t really interested in a “grand bargain.”

My fellow countrymen. When four years ago we met to inaugurate a President, the Republic, single-minded in anxiety, stood in spirit here. We dedicated ourselves to the fulfillment of a vision—to speed the time when there would be for all the people that security and peace essential to the pursuit of happiness. We of the Republic pledged ourselves to drive from the temple of our ancient faith those who had profaned it; to end by action, tireless and unafraid, the stagnation and despair of that day. We did those first things first.

Our covenant with ourselves did not stop there. Instinctively we recognized a deeper need—the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization… To do this we knew that we must find practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men. —Franklin D. Roosevelt, Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 1937

Just over three-quarters of a century ago, in his second inaugural address, Franklin Roosevelt, reflecting on the accomplishments of the New Deal in mitigating the worst effects of the Great Depression, noted that “the greatest change we have witnessed [over the past four years] has been the change in the moral climate in America.” Among “men of goodwill,” he went on, “science and democracy together offer an ever-richer life and ever-larger satisfaction to the individual. With this change in our moral climate and our rediscovered ability to improve our economic order, we have set our feet upon the road of enduring progress.”

FDR based this assumption on the idea that what had transpired over the course of his first term—a first term which brought us, among other things, Social Security, unemployment insurance, the right of workers to engage in collective bargaining, the separation of commercial and investment banking, the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the largest single drop in the unemployment rate in the nation’s history to date, and an average annual economic growth rate of 14 percent—was directly tied to a new understanding of the role of government. This new understanding, he noted, was based on the “fulfillment of a [collective] vision…to speed the time when there would be for all the people that security and peace essential to the pursuit of happiness.”

Equally important, however, was FDR’s assertion that in arriving at this new vision of government the people understood that it was critical to find “practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men,” to recognize the “need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization.”

In essence, what FDR offered the American people was a new vision for the future. This new vision was based the fundamental idea that it was only the power of democratic government that could provide the means to counter “the blind economic forces” and “blindly selfish men” who had profaned democracy and brought the country to ruin in the dark days of the early 1930s.

There is much in this speech that still holds relevance for Americans today. In the massive loss of manufacturing jobs and the globalization of the world’s economy in the last few decades, we can see at work “the blind economic forces” of which FDR spoke. And in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the power of the “blindly selfish men” on Wall Street is all too familiar. So too—thanks to the onset of the Great Recession—is the anxiety, fear, and bewilderment that he noted plagued the American people on the eve of his first inaugural. What is missing, sadly, is the contravening narrative, the covenant that FDR made with the American people, the understanding that the reforms achieved in his first term had made the exercise of all power more democratic by bringing:

…private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public’s government. The legend that they were invincible—above and beyond the processes of a democracy—has been shattered. They have been challenged and beaten.

President Obama has for the most part shied away from the idea that the real challenge to our democracy stems not from the dysfunctional nature of Congress, but rather from the forces of wealth and privilege who see themselves as “above and beyond the process of democracy.” Rather than take on these forces directly, he speaks instead of asking the wealthy to “pay their fair share in taxes,” of building a consensus, of taking a “balanced approach,” of striking a “grand bargain” that would make sure that middle-class folks aren’t bearing the entire burden and sacrifice when it comes to some of these big challenges.” In taking this approach, the president argues that he is following the will of the American people, who made it clear through his re-election that they want compromise and action. These may be noble sentiments, but they fall far short of expressing what the American people truly want from their president, which above all else is leadership.

The sad fact is that we now live in a society where the income disparity between the rich and the rest of us now stands at its worst level since the late 1920s—just before the onset of the Great Depression. The Congressional Budget Office, for example, recently reported that between 1979 and 2007 the top 1 percent of households doubled their share of pretax income while the bottom 80 percent of American households actually saw their share of income decline. In a similar study, a recent Census Bureau report notes that the average white male worker earns roughly the same hourly wage that he would have made in 1978, adjusted for inflation, while the average CEO’s pay has increased by roughly 600 percent.

As was the case in the 1920s, such a drastic mal-distribution of wealth is clearly not sustainable, as it makes it very hard for the average worker to sustain the level of purchases necessary to maintain our largely consumer-based economy. Hence, if we truly want to find a way to grow our economy—as the president insists he does—then we must find a way to address this critical structural imbalance in our economy. And this means real reform, the type of reforms we saw in the New Deal, reforms that brought about the birth of the post-1945 modern American middle class that now seems to be so rapidly disappearing.

So rather than beat about the bushes, President Obama might do well to recognize—as FDR did—that the forces of wealth and privilege weighted against him are not really interested in a compromise or a “grand bargain.” What they want is to maintain the economic and political status quo in what FDR once rightly called the “false belief” that happiness can only be achieved “in the mad chase of evanescent profits.”

To overcome these entrenched forces, President Obama will need to provide the country with much more than his somewhat vague efforts to meet the other side halfway. He must learn to recognize that above all else it is his responsibility to give voice to the common aspiration of the people and provide them with a vision for the future — a vision that recognizes government’s fundamental responsibility to fashion a more just and equitable society, a vision based on the truism, as FDR said in his second inaugural, that:

We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays. We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.

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