FDR — Obama’s Illustrious Predecessor?
Is Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama an FDR for the 21st century?
- Obama's message brings the political rhetoric back to the "we" — instead of all the usual emphasis on the "me." In that regard, he clearly follows in Roosevelt's footsteps.
- Merely staying with the same old policies — and continuing the last two decades of political polarization — is not an option at a time of economic unease.
- FDR was once written off as a great orator who, despite prior government service, was essentially deemed unprepared for the presidency.
- Through his outstanding ability as a speaker, Roosevelt offered hope to the United States at a time when, in the eyes of many Americans, all hope seemed lost.
- Roosevelt promised to lift the United States out of the Great Depression — but at the time of his speechifying in the campaign, he had no definite policies to execute that vision.
It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who stated in his inaugural address in March 1933 that “there is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Interestingly, the similarities between Barack Obama and FDR do not end here.
Barack Obama’s critics steadfastly argued that his ability as a moving orator should not be a ticket to the White House. Furthermore, critics claimed that Obama is ill-prepared to become president — because he supposedly has few actual policies planned out.
And yet, one of the greatest presidents in modern U.S. history, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, faced similar criticism during his first presidential campaign in 1932 — despite a distinguished legacy of government service, first as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and later as Governor of New York.
Through his outstanding ability as a speaker, Roosevelt offered hope to the United States at a time when, in the eyes of many Americans, all hope seemed lost.
Parallels between 2008 and 1932
Moreover, Roosevelt promised to lift the United States out of the Great Depression — but at the time of his speechifying in the campaign, he had no definite policies to execute that vision.
Much as was the case today in 2008, the 1932 campaign featured a loathed Republican president. Herbert Hoover’s belief in “trickle-down economics” and “rugged individualism” during the Great Depression made him a highly unpopular candidate when he was up for re-election. Even though George W. Bush was not on the ballot in 2008, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain campaigned in the shadow of the highly unpopular president.
When Roosevelt accepted the Democratic nomination at the 1932 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he said, “I pledge you, I pledge myself to a New Deal for the American people.” Similarly, Obama pledged “change” throughout his campaign.
Roosevelt concluded his acceptance speech at that convention with words that could be mistaken for passages from an Obama speech today: “Never before in modern history have the essential differences between the two major American parties stood out in such striking contrast as they do today.
“Republican leaders not only have failed in material things, they have failed in national vision, because in disaster they have held out no hope, they have pointed out no path for the people below to climb back to places of security and of safety in our American life.
“Throughout the nation, men and women, forgotten in the political philosophy of the government of the last years, look to us here for guidance and for more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth.
“On the farms, in the large metropolitan areas, in the smaller cities and in the villages, millions of our citizens cherish the hope that their old standards of living and of thought have not gone forever. Those millions cannot and shall not hope in vain.”
When Roosevelt won the 1932 election, the country was eager for the change he had promised. When Roosevelt took office in March 1933, he and the 100 Day Congress went to work immediately.
Despite quite a few start-up hiccups, he managed to rally some of the nation’s best and brightest to collaborate with him in the search for solutions.
The most significant work of Roosevelt’s administration was the New Deal. While the New Deal did not eliminate the problems of the Great Depression, it helped to get the United States back on its feet. In light of rapidly growing economic uncertainty that extends well beyond the subprime issue, that is what a growing number of Americans think is needed here in the United States today.
Of course, nobody ultimately knows whether Obama has what it takes to succeed in this regard — or whether anybody could succeed. But merely staying with the same old policies — and continuing the last two decades of political polarization — is not an option at a time of economic unease.
Roosevelt contracted polio during his thirties. For all the privileges of his upbringing, it was Roosevelt’s disability that motivated him to become a great politician. He is known to have claimed that “after trying for two years to wiggle one big toe, all else seemed easy.”
Barack Obama has also faced considerable difficulty throughout his life. Obama struggled through a fatherless childhood and faced adversity because of his ethnic background — even inside the Democratic Party’s “big tent.” But like Roosevelt, Obama did not let these adversities stop him from rising to political prominence.
What is so significant about Obama’s consistent message is that that it brings the political rhetoric back to the “we” — instead of all the usual emphasis on the “me.” In that regard, he clearly follows in Roosevelt’s footsteps.
Roosevelt made it clear in his inauguration speech that the climb back from the Great Depression would be a collaborative effort. In reading his words, just imagine that the U.S. economy takes a decided turn for the worse — and ask yourself whether FDR’s train of thought truly seems out of place.
Echoes of the past
As FDR said at the occasion: “The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temples or our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit,” Roosevelt stated.
And he continued: “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money — it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative work. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered onto — but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.”
And finally: “If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize, as we have never before, our interdependence on each other, that we cannot merely take, but we must give as well, that if we are to go forward we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because, without such discipline, no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good.”
In closing, just as the charge raised against Obama in the 2008 campaign — FDR was once written off as a great orator who, despite prior government service, was essentially deemed unprepared for the presidency.
In hindsight, FDR is credited with helping to rescue the United States from one of its darkest days. In light of rising levels of internal divisiveness and possibly at the outset of another very difficult period in modern American economic history, the voters of 2008 are banking their hopes that another FDR — read transformative U.S. president — is in the making.
Editor’s Note: This is Part I of a two-part series. Read Part II here.