The media, which loves headlines and knows little history, is trying to sell President Elect Obama as another Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But that jump is really a bit premature and perhaps out of sync. Obama was the child of a racially mixed marriage, between an African man, who quickly abandoned the family, and a hippy anthropologist mother who left her child with her parents while she roamed the earth. If one reads his autobiographies one senses very clearly a young man desperately trying to come to grips with his identity in life. FDR was, on the other hand, from a wealthy patrician family with an extremely devoted mother, and a much older father who came from a group of financiers and shippers often making the China run in the ninetieth century. He knew who he was and relished to recount his background.
One frequently hears that FDR excluded an incredible sense of personal and national optimism, but the very night before his inaugural in which he said that the only thing we had to fear is fear itself—he wondered to a close friend if he was indeed up to the job. One quarter to one third of the nation was unemployed, and people were literally starving at the same time the farms were glutted with crops and animals that could not be sent to market at decent prices.
FDR promised the nation a new deal, one of bold, frank experimentation. He did not know which of his reforms would work, so he tried them all and kept what seemed to alleviate the misery. He was a professional politician, and his role model was his cousin Republican Teddy Roosevelt. He followed the same career path: Harvard, the New York state legislature, running for the vice presidency, governor of New York, and then the presidency. Actually the plan was for FDR to run in 1936, since he and his advisors believed that Hoover would surely get a second term, but then the Depression came.
Despite the usual belief, FDR barely got the nomination, and his base was not the liberal northeast (which still loved Catholic Al Smith) but the segregationist South. It was when FDR repudiated Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations that he got the critical votes of California and Texas and was nominated the first time. He was not highly regarded by all. Other governors said after the One Hundred Days—who is this, he is not the Roosevelt we knew. Pundit Walter Lippman said that he was simply a nice young man who wanted to be president of the United States. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called him a third rate intellect, with a first rate temperament. No one is going to make that understatement of Barack Obama.
At first, FDR tried to be a bipartisan president, which worked for a year or two, but eventually the Republicans and the wealthy class turned on him with a viciousness rarely seen in politics. Confused at first, FDR who saved capitalism could not understand their sentiment. But then, he bluntly remarked that they hated him and he welcomed their hatred. He was a master at throwing out red meat to the partisans, an art Obama is going to have learned soon.
Obama is cool, a college professor who would probably be more at home with Woodrow Wilson than FDR. Despite his origins, FDR was a master at the democratic touch. When I was finishing up my history of the presidency, I asked an old man who had met FDR what he was like. He said that it was like talking to your next door neighbor. In the back of a roadster, wearing his fedora, Roosevelt asked the farmers there how things were going. They complained about the lack of rain, and a sympathetic FDR said he understood, for he too was a farmer, by that he probably meant those few apple trees at Hyde Park! When he left, it rained the next day. The gods had smiled.
In his first One Hundred Days and in 1935, he laid the groundwork for the First and then the Second New Deal—relief, recovery, and reform. By 1937, he had been reelected, but the Depression continued, until the US prepared for war. It was a military version of the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes—deficit spending will end the Depression, which is what we are doing now.
So there are similarities with our time, but there is one big difference—we have a safety net created by Franklin D. Roosevelt in place that is muting some of the harsh effects of our time, the same safety net that Reagan and Bush II wanted to destroy in the name of a Wild West free market economy. The Republicans are complaining that we have socialism—they are right, we have capitalism for the poor and socialism for the rich. It is the worst of both worlds, as we pass around the bailout hat.
Click here to listen to Michael Riccards talk about the growing interest in a New New Deal and the lessons our leaders should learn from history.