We Need Action

01/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"We need action -- and action now."

These words have recently rung out in the broad Midwestern baritone of Barack Obama. But the thought behind them has been forcefully stated before, at a strikingly similar moment in our nation's history -- not coming from the President Elect's beloved Chicago neighborhood but from a different Hyde Park, whose resident spoke in the clipped tones of a New York patrician.

What better model could President-Elect Obama choose for himself now than this great predecessor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt? While policymakers are looking back to the Great Depression for clues to managing today's economic crisis, our incoming President is doing exactly the right thing by taking his own cues from FDR during the historic First Hundred Days.

Make no mistake: those famous black-and-white photographs of breadlines and Dust Bowl migrants have been vividly brought back to life by last night's news on CNN and Fox. Today, as in 1932-33, the election of a new President has coincided with bank closings, massive job layoffs, threats of mortgage foreclosures, and the gathering of hungry, abashed Americans in soup kitchens.

Then, as now, the situation worsened while the country waited for its new administration. On November 8, 1932, Roosevelt defeated the incumbent Herbert Hoover by 472-59 in electoral votes, carrying 57% of the popular vote. But FDR would not take office until March 4. The winter was bleak. Millions of Americans were losing their life savings as banks shut their doors. In Toledo, Ohio, unemployment reached 80%. The suicide rate had tripled in just four years. And Herbert Hoover, presiding over this deteriorating situation during his last months in office, was willing to pump liquidity into the banking system but nothing more. Like many Republicans today, he was firmly opposed to mobilizing federal resources to help those facing the loss of jobs, homes, and farms.

Meanwhile, the President-Elect had no fixed blueprint. During his campaign, FDR had not detailed the legislation he would propose to Congress to foster recovery. The strategy he brought into the White House, as the Hundred Days began, was driven less by policy than by a social and political vision, which he communicated with great personal skill.

We need those same skills today. A major lesson for our new President is to speak directly and candidly to the citizens, again and again. The "fireside chats" that FDR initiated over the radio made more than sixty million Americans feel that their President had come into their homes. The policies that FDR introduced during the First Hundred Days were shifting and in some ways experimental -- as he himself admitted, he would try one thing and another to see what might work -- but his voice and presence were steady and dependable. There is no doubt that they strengthened the national will toward an economic recovery.

Like FDR, President-Elect Obama has already issued a call to action. He should not hesitate to continue that call -- personally, repeatedly, with all his eloquence.