FDR's Debate Lesson for Obama: It's About Capturing Americans' Imaginations

Oct 4, 2012David B. Woolner

President Obama spent too much time picking apart the details of his opponent's plans instead of attacking the underlying philosophy as FDR did.

Let me warn you and let me warn the Nation against the smooth evasion which says, “Of course we believe all these things; we believe in social security; we believe in work for the unemployed; we believe in saving homes. Cross our hearts and hope to die, we believe in all these things; but we do not like the way the present Administration is doing them. Just turn them over to us. We will do all of them—we will do more of them we will do them better; and, most important of all, the doing of them will not cost anybody anything.”

But, my friends, these evaders are banking too heavily on the shortness of our memories. No one will forget that they had their golden opportunity—twelve long years of it.

Remember, too, that the first essential of doing a job well is to want to see the job done. Make no mistake about this: the Republican leadership today is not against the way we have done the job. The Republican leadership is against the job's being done. — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936

From the moment he took office in the New York State Senate until his death as president roughly 35 years later, Franklin D. Roosevelt relished the toss and tumult of the political arena. As he once told a reporter in the midst of his early struggle with New York’s Tammany Hall political machine, “there is nothing I love as much as a good fight” – and FDR was brilliant at it.

This passion for the art of politics—and for the basic principles that underpinned his political philosophy—served FDR extremely well over the course of his public life. In fact, few politicians in the 20th century, with the exception of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and his cousin Theodore Roosevelt, ever came close to FDR’s ability to master the nation’s political discourse.

What fueled FDR was his fundamental belief in the power of government to create a more just and equitable society, and his deep knowledge—from personal experience—of the forces of wealth and privilege that had little if any regard for the plight of millions upon millions of Americans who struggled day by day to provide for their families. FDR never forgot that it was these “malefactors of great wealth,” as his cousin TR labeled them, who brought the country to ruin in 1929, and he spent the better part of his presidency in battle against the forces that wanted to return the United States to the so-called Gilded Age of unfettered capitalism.

The American people understood this, in part because they had lived through the economic collapse that brought on the Great Depression, but also because of the clear and unequivocal message that FDR delivered time and time again about the nature of struggle between those who sought to exploit the free-market system for their own ends, and those who believed, as he did, that the only way to make capitalism work in the long run was to make sure that it provided a basic measure of economic security and opportunity to all Americans, not just those at the top.

It was this conviction that led the Roosevelt administration to initiate Social Security and unemployment insurance, to guarantee bank deposits through the FDIC, or to protect investors—both small and large—through the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The aim here was not to create “trickle-down government,” or a generation of dependents, as Governor Romney would have us believe, but rather to use government to ensure that the millions who toiled in the nation’s farms and factories might receive a decent wage and a small measure of economic security against what FDR called “the hazards and vicissitudes of life,” such as the loss of a job or poverty-ridden old age.

We now take many of these programs for granted, but in FDR’s day they aroused fierce opposition, particularly from the well-heeled conservative elite, who did everything they could to try to discredit both the president and his ideas. In their view, FDR’s philosophy of government was tantamount to socialism, an un-American attempt to subvert the Constitution and rob the nation of the individual initiative that stood at the core of its—and their—success.

But FDR would have none of this, and in a series of withering attacks on what he called “a generation of self-seekers” he implored the American people to join him in abandoning “our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life.” Indeed, as he reminded the American people in the summer of 1936, it was critical that the nation reject a system of governance where “for too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality,” where “a small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor—other people's lives.”

For Roosevelt, the great issues of his day were not simply about whose “plan” might deliver more jobs for the American people, or provide a greater chance at reducing the deficit, but about the fundamental moral and economic structure of our society -- a society where government must remain determined “to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and [where] we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous.”

Like FDR in 1936, President Obama now faces the same sort of “powerful influences” that in Roosevelt’s words “strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.” But judging from last night’s debate, one would hardly know it. Instead of attacking the underlying philosophy behind Governor Romney’s call for the restoration of the types of policies that led to the Great Depression and the Great Recession—policies that in Romney’s words would rid the country of what he calls “the web of dependency” among the “47 percent”—the president spent too much time trying to explain the differences between the two men’s various “plans.” Given Governor Romney’s penchant for leaving out the details of his various proposals to reduce the deficit and grow the economy, perhaps this is understandable, but in doing so the president failed to capture the imagination of the American people.

This is unfortunate, for Governor Romney is correct when he says this election is about choosing very different paths for our nation. Will we embrace the type of society that was built in the New Deal? A country where the reforms of the 1930s helped the middle class flourish in the decades after World War II? Or will we embrace the philosophy of government that has become increasingly dominant in the past 30-plus years -- a philosophy of government where, as the Census Bureau recently reported, the average male worker is making the same hourly wage adjusted for inflation that he was making in 1978, while the average CEO’s pay over the same period has sextupled and the income of the people in the top 1 percent has grown by 600 percent?

For Roosevelt, the answer was obvious, and he was not afraid to state it “boldly and plainly.” As he said in his speech to the 1936 Democratic Convention:

The defeats and victories of these years have given to us as a people a new understanding of our government and of ourselves… It has been brought home to us that the only effective guide for the safety of this most worldly of worlds, the greatest guide of all, is moral principle…

We cannot afford to accumulate a deficit in the books of human fortitude.

In the place of the palace of privilege we seek to build a temple out of faith and hope and charity…

Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales.

Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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