When I write about Franklin Roosevelt, my grandfather, I generally avoid comparing him to President Obama. However, especially since the Democrats' debacle in last November's elections--a sharp contrast to FDR leading the party to substantial gains in his first mid-term election in 1934--I feel a searching comparison could be useful as we look forward to 2012. How did FDR, presiding over a country still in deep economic depression, succeed in rallying Americans behind him, and why can't Obama seem to do the same?
Obama's economic advisors--all of whom come from the culture of Wall Street--have convinced him that challenging the business community too sharply would impinge on economic recovery. He has also carefully avoided criticism of the Bush Administration, I suppose because he wished to make a great point of reaching across the aisle to his Republican opposition. He has thus deprived himself of making plain who was responsible for the Great Recession. The legacy President Obama inherited from the Bush administration shortly became his own, and the American people never got a true sense of his values.
FDR expressed his values. The destructiveness of lust, anger and greed was apparent to him, and he didn't back off from referring to the greed of those on Wall Street whose actions had created the Great Depression.
At his first inauguration address--before he had set foot in the White House--Roosevelt said that, "...[T]he rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated."
Practices of the unscrupulous moneychangers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. ... Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.
Obama, on the other hand, is not conveying to the American people where he stands, what he is for and what he is against. Although his administration has made great strides in financial reform, his priority still seems to be to support the business community.
His inaugural address in 2009 did include criticism. "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age," Obama said. However, his criticism was passive--"on the part of some"--and he immediately undercut his point ("but also"). Unlike Roosevelt, he did not specifically denunciate those who caused the crisis.
FDR made it clear where he stood on basic issues. His attitude towards people and their communities is the root, I think, of the famed "coalition" of voting groups on which the Democratic Party prospered for a good number of years.
The present administration in the White House seems instead to be imitating the Hoover administration in its last year. Hoover was not unaware of the deep plight of the nation, but his faith in "free enterprise" prevailed over his humanitarian experience. Capping Hoover's final year in the White House were his last-minute efforts to intervene. He gathered Wall Street's senior bankers in the East Room and detailed what they had to do. All nodded affirmatively and murmured agreement, and then proceeded to ignore their President, carrying on business as usual.
(The extraordinary investigation into the banking community's malfeasance by Ferdinand Pecora, the chief counsel to the Senate banking committee, was well over when I began to absorb lessons of the financial crisis of the 1920s and '30s from the conversation at the dinner table. I do, however, remember one occasion when no less than the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of the Interior and the President of the United States detailed to me Pecora's exposure of the financial community.)
FDR's more conservative economic counselors advised him to avoid "make work" programs. His reply was an address to the nation:
To those who say our expenditures for Public Works and other means for recovery are a waste that we cannot afford, I answer that no country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order.
The New Deal was a legislative feat that has never since been matched by any president. The key--how the president used the power of his office to shape public opinion--should not be overlooked. Some may deride this use of power as "the bully pulpit," but it is simply how a president can, and should, pick his enemies, especially when he can focus on people and institutions that have pulled down our capitalist system through their unbridled greed. FDR recognized that confrontation is not only a necessary tool, it is an essential political one.
While Obama has avoided "make work," I presume as a matter of economic principle, his efforts to foster infrastructure programs have languished, putting few people to work, bogged down by bureaucratic paperwork, even though, in less pressing circumstances, some of it--like environmental impact studies--would be useful. But the sense of urgency in getting people into jobs seems not to be a White House priority.
To my dismay, Obama has instead catered to the business and financial community. Not only am I deeply disappointed, but I am also puzzled, bothered and bewildered. For a person who holds such obvious personal values--ones with which I can identify--I don't understand how the President has swallowed the notion that he must placate Wall Street.
The Depression hovered like a grey cloud over the nation right up until we began arming for WWII. The New Deal didn't change that. As Roosevelt himself said in his second inaugural address, "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." But our citizens were not looking at the economic numbers. They knew their President was with them. They knew what he was for and what he was against. FDR's attitude of caring was evident. And it was the basis of his rapport with the American people, and for his re-elections in 1936, 1940 and 1944.
If Barack Obama is only a one-term president it will be because he has failed to establish this rapport.