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SOTU: Like FDR, Obama Could Become Teacher-in-Chief

01/20/2011 02:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

Okay, Obama is no FDR -- at least not the FDR who placed himself "at the head of the urban and agrarian masses," as progressive critic Max Lerner put it in 1939, and led one of the great "upsurging movements of American democracy."

So I won't waste time suggesting that Obama, in his State of the Union Message this coming Tuesday evening, should try to sound like the Second Coming of Roosevelt-the-New-Dealer. To say such things would be foolish, not only because the Republicans control the House, but also because Obama -- despite his community organizing experience -- just doesn't seem to have FDR's progressive spirit in him. Nevertheless, Obama does have in him something of the 32nd president, and I would urge him to start exercising it.

Like FDR, Obama has more than oratorical talents. He also has teaching talents. We need him to put them to work to counter the bizarre renditions of America's past propagated by the likes of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senator Jim DeMint, Governor Rick Perry, chalk-boarder Glenn Beck, media hound Sarah Palin, and AEI president Arthur C. Brooks.

I would seriously urge Obama, the former law professor, to go pedagogical.

I would press him to go up to the Capitol and speak not just as President and Commander-in-Chief, but as Head Teacher. I would tell him to instruct Congress and the nation in American history -- not just the tea party types, but Republicans and Democrats alike. I would encourage him to recover and project the narrative of American experience that reminds us all that the United States was founded as a Grand Experiment. It is an experiment in freedom, equality, and democracy and in extending those ideals. It is an experiment literally inscribed in American life through the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, the Four Freedoms, and the innumerable words and songs delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

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I would then have the president direct our attention and imagination to the National Mall and the monuments we have built to presidents and others who inspired generations to fight for, defend, and advance the nation's historic purpose and promise. I would tell him to fervently recite the words "All men are created equal... Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness... We the People... A new birth of freedom... Government of the people, by the people, for the people... Freedom of speech and expression, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear... and We shall overcome." And I would insist that in the wake of doing so, he go out into the nation and tell that story over and over again.

Franklin Roosevelt regularly spoke to Congress and the public of the American experience and what it promised and demanded. In fact, he wanted to emulate his presidential mentors, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, by writing histories of the United States as they each had. But he did not, for he discovered that he was no author. Still, he articulated a narrative of the nation's history and prospects through his speechmaking. It was a narrative that rejected the story repeatedly told to bolster the rule and status of WASP Americans and the propertied and corporate rich of the Gilded Age. He proffered one in favor of expanding the "We" in "We the People," empowering working people in public and industrial life, and fashioning a social-democratic polity. And when he and his party suffered setbacks in 1938 and 1942, he did not retreat but, rather, sustained that narrative and vision.

Now, when the once-again ascendant right threatens not only Obama's own pro-corporate Health Reform Act, but Social Security itself -- as well as any chance of real recovery, reconstruction, and reform -- and guarantees to return us to the social and economic order of the Gilded Age, Obama cannot win significant legislative victories. But as "Educator-in-Chief," he can cultivate a more progressive American narrative and thereby encourage energies that might once again turn into movements.