FDR Knew Public Education is Vital to a Prosperous Nation

Feb 22, 2012Philip Klinkner

fdrmain-150At a time when government support for education is under attack, a reminder in FDR's own words that the progress of our nation depends on a well-educated citizenry.

fdrmain-150At a time when government support for education is under attack, a reminder in FDR's own words that the progress of our nation depends on a well-educated citizenry.

Today, many argue that the government can't afford some of its most fundamental tasks, including support for education. Some politicians have even gone so far as to question the very idea of public education. But President Franklin Roosevelt knew that mass education requires government support and that cutting such support in times of economic need is penny wise and pound foolish, since a prosperous economy and decent society require widespread education.

On February 22, 1936, President Roosevelt traveled to Philadelphia, PA, where he received an honorary degree from Temple University. Roosevelt used the occasion to emphasize the critical role of government in advancing education. He pointed out that it was altogether fitting that the day was George Washington's birthday, since "What President Washington pointed out on many occasions and in many practical ways was that a broad and cosmopolitan education in every stratum of society is a necessary factor in any free Nation governed through a democratic system."

Roosevelt went on to add that the progress of a nation cannot and should not be measured solely in material terms. Instead, a nation must also look to progress in "the things of the mind." He pointed to the great advances in education over the previous 50 years and how his administration had worked to ensure that the burden of the Great Depression "should not include the denial of educational opportunities for those who were willing and ready to use them to advantage."

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Increasing levels of education, according to Roosevelt, "has given to this country a population more literate, more cultured, in the best sense of the word, more aware of the complexities of modern civilized life than ever before in our history."

Roosevelt then described the timeless qualities of a true education. First is "a sense of fair play among men. As education grows, men come to recognize their essential dependence one upon the other." Second, true education instills "a sense of equality among men when they are dealing with the things of the mind. Inequality may linger in the world of material things, but great music, great literature, great art and the wonders of science are, and should be, open to all."

Finally, and most importantly, true education requires the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and the truth. At a time when Nazi storm troopers burned books and banned "degenerate" art, and Stalinist commissars sought to bend biology to the will of the state, Roosevelt declared, "No group and no Government can properly prescribe precisely what should constitute the body of knowledge with which true education is concerned. The truth is found when men are free to pursue it."

Though spoken over 75 years ago, Roosevelt's words still hold true. Today we must also confront challenges to sound education, as some still seek to impose their own agendas on the pursuit of knowledge. Most importantly, Roosevelt understood that the essence of democracy is a free people engaged in the search for truth and understanding in an effort to make a better world for themselves and their children. As Roosevelt said, quoting Kipling, "On your own heads, in your own hands, the sin and the saving lies!"

Philip Klinkner is the James S. Sherman Professor of Government at Hamilton College. He is the author (with Rogers Smith) of The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America and he is currently writing a book on the 1936 election.

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FDR Alleviated Americans' Anger and Suffering Through Action

Feb 10, 2012David B. Woolner

The Pecora Commission got to the root causes of the Depression and the HOLC addressed the aftermath. Hopefully Obama's fraud task force and mortgage settlement are on the same course.

The Pecora Commission got to the root causes of the Depression and the HOLC addressed the aftermath. Hopefully Obama's fraud task force and mortgage settlement are on the same course.

The news that President Obama has decided to establish a special new task force to investigate abusive and fraudulent lending practices during the housing boom, coupled with yesterday's announcement of a $26 billion settlement aimed at providing relief to struggling home owners, will certainly be greeted as welcome developments by the millions of Americans still struggling under the weight of the Great Recession. But with many of the details of the practical application of the settlement still to be worked out, and with the task force having just been established, it is too early to tell how much relief will actually reach desperate homeowners or how many banks and/or individuals will face prosecution.

Given the devastation caused by the reckless and often fraudulent behavior of many of the nation's leading banks, and the overwhelming need to stabilize the housing market and provide relief to millions of homeowners, one would hope that these measures would, at the very least, be as effective as the actions taken by the government roughly 80 years ago when we faced a very similar economic crisis.

Most Americans are well aware that the Great Depression was initiated by the collapse of the stock market in the fall of 1929. It was a collapse that came about in large part because of the bursting of a large speculative bubble that had built up over time in the reckless and virtually unregulated financial climate of the 1920s. What is less well known or understood are the many other factors that played a role in the onset of the Great Depression: the decline in agricultural prices, the maldistribution of wealth and income, the collapse of the banking sector, and an equally important urban mortgage crisis. Indeed, by the time Franklin Roosevelt took office in March of 1933, it is estimated that approximately 50 percent of all urban mortgages in the United States were delinquent or in foreclosure and that an average of 1,000 homes per day were being lost.

To deal with the housing emergency and to get to the bottom of what led to the economic crisis in the first place, FDR did two things. First, he fully supported the activities of the 1932 Senate Committee on Banking and Currency that was established to investigate the causes of 1929 crash. Once in office, he moved quickly to provide relief to home owners through the establishment of the Home Owners Mortgage Corporation (HOLC).

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Thanks in large part to the zeal of Ferdinand Pecora, who was appointed to head the Senate committee investigating Wall Street in January 1933 and was quietly encouraged to carry out his work with vigor by President-elect Roosevelt, the "Pecora Commission" would uncover a whole series of unscrupulous practices in the banking and financial sector. These included interest-free loans to top executives at National City Bank (now Citibank); National City's disposal of bad loans to Latin American countries by packing them into securities and selling them to unsuspecting investors; and J.P. Morgan's list of influential "friends," including former President Calvin Coolidge, all of whom were given the opportunity to purchase stock at sharply discounted prices.

These disclosures, coupled with additional revelations about excessive salaries, bonuses, and the fact that many financial elites -- including the head of National City Bank -- did not pay any income tax in the past year, outraged the public and helped inspire the Roosevelt administration and Congress to push through some of the most important banking and financial reforms in American history. These included the Glass Steagall Act, which separated commercial from investment banking and gave us the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the 1934 Securities and Exchange Act, which created the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In the meantime, to meet the urgent housing crisis, the HOLC, which was established within FDR's first 100 days in office, provided direct relief to families facing foreclosure by buying out their existing mortgages and replacing them with new ones. The new ones weren't based on the typical non-amortized loan of seven to ten years, but rather on the far more affordable amortized mortgage of between 25 and 30 years. Over the course of its brief three-year history, the HOLC refinanced over one million homes -- roughly 20 percent of all the urban mortgages in the U.S. In the process, it revolutionized American home ownership through the institutionalization of the 30-year mortgage. It also did not cost the American taxpayer any money, as the HOLC turned a small profit when it finally closed its books in 1951.

Taken together, the measures inspired by the Pecora Commission and the relief brought to millions of American homeowners helped restore investor confidence, resuscitate the financial sector, and lay the foundations upon which our banking, financial, and housing sectors rested from more than half a century.

In making yesterday's announcement, President Obama alluded to both the new task force and the bank settlement by stating that with these measures "we begin to turn a page on an era of recklessness that has left so much damage in its wake." Eighty years ago, the twin combination of a federal investigation and direct action by the government helped alleviate the anger and anguish of the millions of Americans who suffered as the result of the greed and avarice of the wealthy few. Let us hope that the president's new task force and the agreement with our nation's major banks will do the same.

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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Did the White House Try to Get Me Fired for Pushing Health Care Reform to the Left?

Feb 2, 2012Richard Kirsch

In an excerpt from his new book, Fighting for Our Health, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch notices that FDR's message to his supporters was "I agree with you; now make me do it." In the health care fight, Obama's was, "I've got it covered; now leave me alone."

In an excerpt from his new book, Fighting for Our Health, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch notices that FDR's message to his supporters was "I agree with you; now make me do it." In the health care fight, Obama's was, "I've got it covered; now leave me alone."

Since the collapse into disarray of his plan for a grand budget compromise with House Republicans this summer, President Obama has moved dramatically to appeal to the Democratic base. From his speech pushing an aggressive agenda on jobs right after Labor Day to his fiery, populist address in Kansas in December, to the State of the Union address last week, Obama has been working to accentuate the differences in his philosophy from the right rather than bending over backwards to bridge the huge gap. Behind the scenes, the White House has worked strenuously to mend another set of battered bridges -- those with progressive organizations and constituency groups.

In the first year of the Obama administration, it was a very different story. As I found in leading Health Care for America Now, the administration concentrated its charm offensive on potential opponents of reform while trying to reign in any pressure from the left. Rather than following the inside/outside strategy made famous by FDR, who supposedly advised his allies to "make me do it," the White House worked to squelch health reform supporters from fighting in or outside the beltway against legislative concessions.

The White House stance created a major dilemma for the leading progressive organizations, which were eager to work with the new Democratic administration after eight years of Bush. It took almost three full years of the president waffling, and the growing disillusionment of the Democratic base, for many organizations to begin to push more aggressively against the White House's compromises. But that pushback was another big reason that the White House switched courses in the late summer of 2011, realizing it was running out of time to hold onto its organized base.

But in the fall of 2009, the simmering tension between the White House and Health Care for America threatened to come to a boil.

***

Early on a September morning I got a call from a member of the HCAN Steering Committee. The message was brief: Someone at the White House had called SEIU and asked that I be fired.

Whoa. I felt for a moment that I was in a movie. This couldn't be happening to me. My mind started racing, considering how awful the White House would look if it became public that they were going after the head of a big progressive campaign for not toeing the White House line at every step. I might become a symbol for progressives of their growing alienation from the White House. But that was not what I wanted. I wanted to handle the crisis quietly and keep pushing for health reform.

Still, I was upset. When we began this journey, I had expected to take on the insurance industry, big business, the rightwing, and conservative Democrats. I never expected to be blindsided by a Democratic president, particularly when I was spending every waking moment fighting for his top priority. And I had never expected politics to be so personal.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and a Senior Adviser to USAction. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform. Fighting For Our Health is available in bookstores February 1. You can also purchase a copy here. Follow the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.

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130 Years After His Birth, We Still Live in FDR's World

Jan 30, 2012David B. Woolner

President Roosevelt's transformative government not only saved the country from a Great Depression and the world from the grips of fascism, it crafted the country we live in today.

President Roosevelt's transformative government not only saved the country from a Great Depression and the world from the grips of fascism, it crafted the country we live in today.

Government has a final responsibility for the well-being of its citizenship. If private cooperative endeavor fails to provide work for willing hands and relief for the unfortunate, those suffering hardship from no fault of their own have a right to call upon the Government for aid; and a government worthy of its name must make fitting response. - Franklin D. Roosevelt

January 30 marks the 130thbirthday of Franklin D. Roosevelt. For most of today's generation, FDR has become a somewhat distant figure, far removed from the day-to-day struggle to make ends meet at a time of slow growth and high unemployment. They know from their history books that FDR launched the New Deal in the midst of the Great Depression, and that he led the nation to victory in the Second World War. But aside from these basic facts, the average American knows very little about the extent to which the government -- and America's role in the world -- was transformed in the critical years between 1933 and 1945.

Yet, if these same individuals were to pause for a moment to consider just how much Franklin Roosevelt's leadership continues to influence their lives, they might soon conclude, as the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. once observed, "that the world we live in today is Franklin Roosevelt's world."

Consider, for example, just a few of the major initiatives that were introduced under FDR's leadership: the banking and financial reforms that brought us the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Securities and Exchange Commission and, until the passage of the Graham-Leach Act in 1999, the separation of commercial and investment banking. These monumental pieces of legislation brought much needed stability and transparency to our financial system and helped restore the American people's faith in the banking and securities industries. What is more, they were not inspired by any deep-seated enmity for capitalism on FDR's part. Rather, they were based on common sense principles derived from the hard-won lessons of the 1920s, which, above all else, taught the American people that "heedless self-interest" represents not just "bad morals," as FDR put it, but also "bad economics."

FDR also acted swiftly and effectively to help troubled American homeowners through such programs as the Home Owners Loan Corporation, which refinanced approximately 20 percent of all urban mortgages in the country in less than three years; revolutionized the mortgage industry through the widespread use of the 30-year amortized mortgage; and led to the establishment of the Federal Housing Authority (FHA). His administration also pushed through the Social Security Act, which not only provided pensions for the aged, but also our nation's first national system of unemployment insurance, two programs that remain critical to our social and economic wellbeing. Then there was the passage of the National Labor Relations Act that established the National Labor Relations Board and guaranteed the rights of workers to form unions and engage in collective bargaining, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established maximum hours and minimum wages for all workers, unionized or not.

But that was not all. To put people back to work, FDR launched a series of efforts to improve America's woefully inadequate economic infrastructure. Between 1935 and 1943, the most famous of these programs, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), literally built much of modern America, including 572,000 miles of rural roads, 67,000 miles of urban streets, 122,000 bridges, 1,000 tunnels, and 1,050 airfields. The WPA also constructed thousands of schools, hospitals, water treatment facilities, firehouses, and nearly 20,000 other state and local government buildings, many of them adorned by murals painted by out of work artists. This infrastructure helped lay the basis for the massive economic expansion that took place during World War II and the post-war years. In the meantime, the Rural Electrification Administration "wired" the 90 percent of American farms that still had no electricity while the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Soil Conservation Service restored America's forests and farmland. As a result, there is hardly a community in this nation that still does not enjoy the benefits of the public works ushered in under the New Deal.

Click here to buy Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch’s new book on the epic health care reform battle, Fighting for Our Health.

Finally, we should remember that prior to World War II the United States had turned inward and refused to play a leading role in world affairs. Convinced that the Second World War had come about in part from the global economic depravity that helped give rise to fascism in Europe and Asia, FDR used the war as a catalyst for the construction of a new political, strategic, and economic order. It was based in large part on the extension of American moral and military power through the United Nations and the extension of American economic power through the creation of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and a new multilateral economic system that would open up the world's markets and natural resources to freer trade. Taken together, these measures resulted in a permanent restructuring of the world's social, economic, and strategic makeup. They formed the basis of the new world order that has given rise to the globalization of the world's economy and the American-led multilateral security system that the United States has played a leading role in since 1945.

In much the same way that FDR's wartime leadership expanded America's role in the world, the New Deal dramatically expanded the scope of the federal government's responsibilities in American life. Where Washington had previously been only a distant factor in the social and economic standing of the nation, it now became the federal government's responsibility to maintain economic prosperity, to mitigate the worst effects of unfettered capitalism, to spread industrial and agricultural development to impoverished regions of the nation, to guarantee workers' right to choose their unions, to protect the bargaining rights of those unions, and to conserve and develop the nation's vast natural and artistic resources. In less than a decade, the United States government had become the primary guarantor of social and economic justice for all Americans, rich and poor alike.

Today's right-wing extremists, much like the conservative critics in FDR's own day, call this "socialism." But the New Deal did not set out to radically change the foundations of American capitalism. On the contrary, it revised that system in order to save it. While Roosevelt did foresee and support the increased socialization of the American economy and society -- insofar as that meant greater government responsibility for the people's welfare -- he took for granted that the system would remain rooted in free market principles, and he was no socialist.

The overall result was to create a domestic social and economic structure that allowed capitalism to flourish even as the government put in place the means by which it might be regulated. This new "philosophy," which included the embrace of Keynesian economic policy, stood at the root of what President Obama has correctly called the post-1945 creation of the "strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known."

President Obama is right to call for more action on the part of the federal government to stimulate the struggling U.S. economy. He is also right to demand a return to an America where "everyone gets a fair shot, ...everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules." But thanks to the mythology perpetuated by the same right wing that attacked FDR, the New Deal and the philosophy behind it has been largely forgotten. Instead, we are told time and time again that the free market will provide all we need -- excessive wealth for some and well paying jobs for everyone else -- so long as government, with its nasty habit of deficit spending, gets out of the way. This free market myth ignores the overwhelming evidence from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s that the free enterprise system can fail and that there are times when the government must step in to restore the economic health of the nation. Yet it has become so pervasive that even in the wake of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, our political discourse remains fixed not on how much the government should spend to restore the economy, but on how to reduce the deficit; not on how we might use government to restore basic fairness to our economic system, but on how we might reduce government involvement in the economy at a time when we can least afford it. In such a political environment, is it any wonder that even President Obama's effort to pass his modest jobs bill faces an uphill battle?

Franklin Roosevelt once said that there was nothing he loved so much "as a good fight." Perhaps, in this critical election year, it is time for the president and the leaders of the Democratic Party to take on the right-wing soothsayers of doom and make the case clearly and unequivocally for the one instrument strong enough to take on the forces of greed and avarice that have hijacked our democracy. Perhaps they should remind the American public, as Franklin Roosevelt did, that there comes a time in the life of every people when the only way to take on the forces of "economic tyranny" -- whose callous behavior has twice in the past century nearly brought our country to ruin -- is to turn to "the organized power of government."

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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Obama Rediscovers FDR's Aggressive Economic Policy

Jan 26, 2012David B. Woolner

By telling the story of post-War America's prosperity in the State of the Union, President Obama highlights a path we should take today: forceful government action.

By telling the story of post-War America's prosperity in the State of the Union, President Obama highlights a path we should take today: forceful government action.

In his annual State of the Union Address, President Obama spoke of the generation of Americans who "triumphed over a depression and fascism" to build "the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known." He made reference to his grandfather, a veteran of World War II, who returned from combat and went college on the G.I. Bill. He also referenced his grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line as "part of a workforce that turned out the best products on earth." Together, he went on, they lived with "the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement."

This story is typical of the millions of Americans who struggled through the twin crises of the 1930s and 40s, when the United States was transformed from a country brought to its knees by fear and economic paralysis to the single most powerful nation on the planet. But contrary to popular myth, this transformation -- which included the birth of the modern middle class -- did not take place by accident or miraculously emerge as the result of the initiative of millions of "rugged individualists." It came about because, under the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt, the American government pursued policies that directly benefited working Americans.

The G.I. Bill is an excellent example of this. Under its terms, returning veterans did not just receive a better shot at a job thanks to tax credits offered to companies which might hire them, but a host of concrete benefits. They included full tuition, books, and living expense payments for those veterans wishing to pursue a higher education; support for vocational training; guaranteed unemployment insurance; and low interest loans for the purchase of a home, small business, or farm. The impact of the G.I Bill on postwar America was enormous. Within the next seven years, for example, approximately 8 million veterans would take advantage of its education benefits. As a result, millions of Americans who might never have dreamed of going to college were able to do so; and millions more would enhance their earning power and job prospects through the vocational training and other educational benefits the act provided.

And what of the president's grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line in Wichita? Again, there is much more to this tale than merely the story of a woman trying to help the war effort and make a living by working the night shift in a factory in Kansas. The president's grandmother was in fact part of one of the largest aviation projects in world history: the construction of the B-29 Superfortress. The B-29 was no ordinary aircraft. Aside from its enormous size, it was one of the most advanced aircraft of its day, with high performance engines, a pressurized cabin, an electronic fire control system, and remote-controlled machine gun turrets. To assist with its rapid development, the federal government poured over three billion dollars into the project. At its peak, the manufacture of the B-29 employed hundreds of thousands of workers in four major facilities, including the Wichita plant where 40,000 workers -- whose wages and benefits were secured through their union, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) -- churned out an average of four bombers a day. But even this is only part of the story. Overall, American aircraft production represented the single largest sector of the wartime economy, employing over two million workers, who turned out a staggering 125,000 aircraft at a cost of $45 billion -- roughly one fourth of the $183 billion the federal government spent on war production.

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Conservative critics of the New Deal are fond of saying that it did not work, that it was the Second World War, not Roosevelt's programs, that finally brought the Great Depression to a close. What they ignore is the fact that government spending in the Second World War represents one of the greatest federal stimulus packages in American history -- in essence, the New Deal on steroids. Nor will these same critics ever acknowledge that the postwar economic boom that followed, which built "the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known," came right on the heels of a period of massive government spending and borrowing. Federal expenditures accounted for no less than half of the country's Gross National Product during that period. Even more shocking, from the free market fundamentalists' point of view, is the fact both the war and postwar period of economic expansion came about at a time when union membership and wages were at an all time high.

So when the president calls on us to embrace the "American promise" -- that through hard work the average American can do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send his/her kids to college, and put a little away for retirement -- we should remember that it was not just "American values" that made this possible, but American law. It was the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, for example, that guaranteed the rights of workers to form unions that led the IAM drive to organize the aircraft industry and ultimately improve the wages and benefits of the B-29 workers in Kansas. It was the passage of the Social Security Act in the same year that provided a measure of support for working Americans' retirement and our first national unemployment insurance program. It was the G.I Bill that helped train the thousands of engineers, architects, technicians, and skilled workers needed to meet the demands of the expanding postwar economy. It was the passage of the Glass-Steagall Act and Securities and Exchange Act in 1933 and 34 that helped protect poor and middle class families from the vagaries and greed of the financial sector.

Taken together,  these measures transformed the basic structure of the American economy. American workers -- consumers in today's language -- did not have to go into debt to purchase the goods and services they desired. Rather, they earned a wage high enough to make it possible for them to contribute to the expansion of the economy. And with Social Security and the financial and banking sector properly regulated, these same workers could even invest a small portion of their income in the stock market or put aside a small amount of money to help pay for their children's education. It was this basic economic structure, backed not by socialism but by laws, meant to curb the excesses of unfettered capitalism, which provided the American people with the one thing they wanted more than anything else: economic security.

President Obama is right to demand that we need to return to an economy where "everyone gets a fair shot...everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules." But as we have learned at great cost, the forces of greed and avarice that brought on the Great Recession -- like the forces that brought on the Great Depression -- will not disappear of their own volition. If he really wants to meet the urgent need to restore a sense of balance to the American economy, put the millions of unemployed back to work, and provide a better future for our children, then he should intensify his demand that Congress act quickly and forcefully to do so. He might take counsel from FDR, who, in the darks days of 1932, observed:

The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach. We need enthusiasm, imagination and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely. We need to correct, by drastic means if necessary, the faults in our economic system from which we now suffer. We need the courage of the young. Yours is not the task of making your way in the world, but the task of remaking the world which you will find before you. May every one of us be granted the courage, the faith and the vision to give the best that is in us to that remaking.

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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Michelle Obama and the Fossilized Role of First Lady

Jan 13, 2012Bryce Covert

Women make up half the workforce, get degrees in droves, and have their own careers. So it's little wonder that a role that requires women give that all up is an awkward fit.

Women make up half the workforce, get degrees in droves, and have their own careers. So it's little wonder that a role that requires women give that all up is an awkward fit.

As long as there have been presidents in this country, there have been first ladies at their side. The role is traditionally to act as a homemaker and hostess, tending to the family and the White House. This was the purview of middle and upper class wives, after all. But now that we live in an era where women represent almost half of the workforce, pursuing independent careers and even sometimes acting as the breadwinner for their families, we're still playing catch up. The role of first lady in particular continues to be murky and old-fashioned. Not elected, yet married to the most powerful man in the country. Highly influential, yet often resented for using that influence. And above all, educated and often professionally successful, yet expected to give up their careers. It's an anachronistic role that has fossilized an older ideal of womanhood and wifeliness. And it traps many smart women. Enter Michelle Obama.

When Michelle Obama entered the White House, I was hopeful that we would see a return to the model of a strong first lady who stakes out an agenda. After all, she's a Harvard-trained lawyer who had a career of her own. But I quickly became impatient. Mrs. Obama -- or advisers -- seemed more interested in preserving her sky-high poll numbers than giving her an aggressive agenda. She tackled obesity -- but never touched agriculture policy or our health care system. She reached out to military families -- but said nothing about our need to bring troops home.

I held her in contrast to Eleanor Roosevelt, who had tremendous influence on the White House and the country. But in an excerpt from her new book The Obamas, Jodi Kantor shows there may be more similarities between the two than I had been giving credit for. Kantor's interviews "show that [Obama] has been an unrecognized force in her husband's administration and that her story has been one first of struggle, then turnaround and greater fulfillment." Something similar could be said about Eleanor Roosevelt, except perhaps the part about going unrecognized. Both women, successful professionally, struggled with their roles in the White House when they first arrived. Yet it seems that Obama may be starting to follow a trajectory similar to Roosevelt's -- exerting her influence over her husband's administration and beginning to find her place. As well she should. The role makes little sense given the changes to our workforce, and smart, powerful women must make it their own.

Both women faced their coming roles with anxiety after their husbands won the election. As Kantor reports, "Even as Mrs. Obama dazzled Americans with her warmth, glamour and hospitality early in the presidency, she was also deeply frustrated and insecure about her place in the White House." Nothing could be truer of how Eleanor Roosevelt felt about her coming duties. As Blanche Wiesen Cook wrote in her biography Eleanor Roosevelt, "After the election of November 1932, ER worried that her talents would not be used; that she would become a shut-in, a congenial hostess in the political shadows politically sidelined." Obama tried to delay moving to the White House; Roosevelt went further and allegedly told friends she would run away with FDR's bodyguard, Earl Miller.

This ambiguous and potentially confining role came for both women after highly successful careers that they were asked to drop upon taking up residence in the White House. Cook writes that Roosevelt "enjoyed many careers and was all in a day teacher, editor, columnist, and radio commentator" before the presidency. This was in the '30s, before World War II opened the floodgates for women to enter the workforce, but it was a sign of changing times.

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Obama was, of course, a Harvard-trained, practicing lawyer. She exemplifies the high numbers of women seeking higher education today and moving (albeit slowly) into male-dominated professions. Obama, unsurprisingly, at first chafed at the change: as Kantor writes, "A Harvard-trained lawyer, she had given up her career for what initially seemed to her a shapeless post, and she tried to wriggle out of some ceremonial events that she saw as not having much purpose." Roosevelt also at first obliged grudgingly -- although later on went back to work as a unionized reporter, among other roles.

Both of these stories display the inherent contradictions first ladies face. Both women were/are smart and successful, yet were/are supposed to give up all public roles, become the country's hostess, and stand by their man. It's little wonder that upon entering, Obama told her aides she

never wanted to be the kind of first lady who interfered with West Wing business... It was her husband's administration, not hers, she sometimes said. She had little appetite or expertise for policy detail, and she knew the history of first ladies -- like Nancy Reagan and Mrs. Clinton -- who had been deemed meddlers, unelected figures who wielded unearned power.

That's what tradition dictates. But it goes against her intelligence and skills. Once in, she told her advisers she "wanted a more central role in communicating the administration's message," particularly in selling health care reform. West Wing advisers declined, haunted by the ghost of Hillary Clinton past.

It's taken some time to adjust, but it looks like Obama is warming to the fact that she can make this role what she wants. Kantor writes that later on, "Michelle Obama's trajectory in the White House was changing. She was mastering and subtly redefining the role that had once seemed formless to her, and becoming more acclimated to her new life."

For starters, she's begun to play a similar role within the administration that Roosevelt did: keeper of her husband's conscience. The role of the West Wing advisors is often to figure out what deal is possible; these first ladies look for what deal is the right one. Cook wrote of Roosevelt, "FDR liked to boast that he was a "practical politician." He knew how to compromise, make deals, be duplicitous. ER understood the nature of the game, but wanted some assurance that it would be played for the right reasons, the most needful causes." Obama similarly, as it would seem from Kantor's article, butted heads with advisers because she "cherished the idea of her husband as a transformational figure" and "she saw herself as a guardian of values."

The idea that women are no longer confined to the kitchen and tending to children still makes some people queasy. But it's been our reality for half a century. Our policies still haven't caught up, and the role of first lady is perhaps even more outdated. Here's hoping that Michelle Obama is allowed to take control of it, make it her own, and influence this country for the better.

Bryce Covert is Editor of New Deal 2.0.

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Bill Daley, FDR, and the Influence of Presidential Advisors

Jan 12, 2012David B. Woolner

An examination of the position of chief of staff reveals how crucial the role was to FDR's tenure as president.

An examination of the position of chief of staff reveals how crucial the role was to FDR's tenure as president.

The recent news that President Obama's chief of staff has decided to step down after just a year in office has drawn attention to the role that senior advisors play in the White House and the impact they may have -- or not -- on directing policy and achieving a president's agenda. The role of senior advisor has a long history, dating back to President Woodrow Wilson's use of Colonel Edmund House as an "unofficial" advisor. House was offered an official cabinet position, but turned it down so that he would be at liberty to advise the president on a host of matters. Unlike many of his predecessors, House actually lived in the White House and, thanks to his close relationship with President Wilson, became something akin to what we might think of as a modern-day chief of staff or National Security Advisor, as he played a major role in shaping U.S. wartime diplomacy. Due to the complexity of the issues confronting the United States in trying to shape the eventual peace that would come after World War I, Wilson also asked House to lead a special team of experts called "The Inquiry" that was to help formulate U.S. policy at the peace negotiations. The use of The Inquiry, which included many experts drawn from academia, may have served as a model for a far more influential group of expert advisors that came a generation later under what FDR called the "Brains Trust."

The fact that FDR may have modeled this group of advisors on Wilson's use of Colonel House and The Inquiry should come as no surprise. After all, FDR served as Under Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration and was a great admirer of the latter. The immediate inspiration for this group of advisors, however, came not from FDR, but from his legal counsel and speech writer, Samuel Rosenman, who suggested the idea in the course of FDR's 1932 run for the White House. With the country in the midst of the worst economic crisis in its history, which seemed to defy common understanding, the idea of putting together a group of experts to advise the president during the campaign seemed to make a great deal of sense. Moreover, as Roosevelt had already made use of expert advice during his term as Governor of New York, he readily embraced the idea.

The term Brains Trust -- which was first coined in 1932 by James Kieran of the New York Times -- would come to represent the entire coterie of advisors that surrounded FDR during the New Deal. But the original Brains Trust was actually made up of just three individuals drawn from the ranks of Columbia University: Raymond Moley, Rexford Tugwell, and Adolf A. Berle. All three of these men would play an important part in shaping the New Deal, but it was Moley who had perhaps the greatest initial impact.

Moley was a professor of law and government who had supported FDR's 1928 gubernatorial campaign and was active in the field of criminal justice. He also had a knack for organization and for gathering support for his progressive ideas which, along with his innate ability as a speech writer, led Rosenman to suggest him as the person to both recruit and head up the inchoate group of advisors. Moley was only too happy to do so, and it wasn't long before both Tugwell and Berle agreed to join him.

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In April 1932, Moley undertook his first major assignment for the would-be president, helping draft one of FDR's first major national addresses of the campaign: his famous "forgotten man" speech that focused on rural and urban poverty. In the speech, Roosevelt publicly proclaimed his firm belief in the responsibility of the federal government to come to the aid of ordinary citizens. In doing so, FDR rejected the trickle down approach taken by the Hoover administration in response to the economic crisis and instead called for economic mobilization that focused on the lower -- as opposed to upper -- echelons of American society. As Roosevelt put it:

These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest on upon the forgotten, the unorganized, but the essential units of economic power, for plans like those of 1917 that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Moley played a significant role in both drafting the speech and in giving it its populist appeal. It was Moley, for example, who suggested the phrase "forgotten man" (which stemmed from an essay written in the 19th century by the sociologist William Graham Sumner). The line stuck a chord with the public and came to symbolize FDR's support for the millions of poor and powerless Americans that had been victimized by the Depression. Moley also supported the theme of economic mobilization, another concept that would reappear in Roosevelt's rhetoric as the years progressed -- most famously in his First Inaugural.

Perhaps most importantly, Moley may also be responsible not only for the use of the phrase "New Deal" to describe FDR's social and economic agenda, but also -- at least in part -- for some of its most famous components. It is in a May 1932 memorandum written by Moley, for example, that we first see the phrase New Deal. Moreover, the same document also calls for FDR and the Democratic Party to reject the more orthodox and conservative elements of both major parties and embrace instead a much more progressive agenda. He advocated such ideas as a massive federal program of public works to relieve unemployment, the regulation of the utility industry, greater transparency in the financial sector, and the separation of commercial and investment banking -- all issues that would be covered under the reforms of the New Deal.

Ironically, in spite of Moley's strong influence over FDR's policies in the early months of the New Deal, his tenure as a presidential advisor, like that of Bill Daley, would be relatively short lived. It was shorter, in fact, than Daley's or his two fellow members of the original Brains Trust. Under pressure in part from FDR's Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, who was diametrically opposed to the protectionist aspects of Moley's economic agenda, as well as from FDR's long-time political advisor Louis Howe, who began to see Moley as something of a rival, Moley was forced to resign from public service in September 1933.

Still, there is no question that during the first critical months of the New Deal Raymond Moley wielded a great deal of power and influence in Washington. The fact that he was able to do so, and to rise to the upper echelons of the government so quickly, serves as a reminder of just how important presidential advisors can be. This is surely something the press and public should keep in mind as we move further into this election year.

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. He is also the co-author with Henry Henderson ofFDR and the Environment.

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FDR Wants You to Combat Misinformation About Progressive Policies

Jan 11, 2012Philip Klinkner

fdr-we-need-you-150As he kicked off his reelection campaign in 1936, FDR knew that, then as today, it takes an informed and active public to fight back against anti-New Deal attacks.

fdr-we-need-you-150As he kicked off his reelection campaign in 1936, FDR knew that, then as today, it takes an informed and active public to fight back against anti-New Deal attacks.

The 2012 election promises to be one of the most crucial moments in modern American politics. It's clear that it will be a referendum not just on President Obama and the state of the economy, but also on the New Deal and its legacy of government efforts to ensure security and opportunity for all Americans. Because of this, it's important to look back to America's first referendum on the New Deal, the 1936 election.

Then as today, progressive values were under attack. The New Deal was blamed for continuing unemployment and denounced as un-American, unconstitutional. Roosevelt was portrayed as a socialist, a communist, and a fascist, often in the same breath.

To confront this tide of misinformation, the president kicked off the 1936 election campaign 76 years ago Sunday. On January 8, Roosevelt addressed the Democratic Party's annual Jackson Day dinner at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. In addition, thousands more listened in at similar dinners around the country through a special radio hookup. In his speech, Roosevelt began by pointing out how fitting it was to honor Andrew Jackson since the issue of the day, "the right of the average man and woman to lead a finer, a better and a happier life... was the same issue, more than a hundred years ago, that confronted Andrew Jackson."

But the purpose of Roosevelt's speech was not merely to offer up paeans to Old Hickory. The president understood that the success of his reelection effort, and indeed of the New Deal and progressive, humane government, required an informed and active American public. For this reason he praised Jackson for his efforts to educate and to include average Americans in the great issues of the day. And to do this, Jackson did not rely on the "luxurious propaganda" wielded by his political enemies. Instead, "the man on the street and the man on the farm believed in his ideas, believed in his ideals and his honesty, went out and dug up the facts and spread them abroad throughout the land."

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Roosevelt told his listeners that same problem remained -- the need to get out the truth "in the face of an opposition bent on hiding and distorting facts." Accomplishing this required that all those who believed in progressive causes must constitute a "committee of one" that would

run down statements made to you by others which you may believe to be false. You will need to analyze the motives of those who make assertions to you. You will need to make an inventory in your own community, in order that you may check and recheck for yourself and thereby be in a position to answer those who have been misled or those who would mislead.

Such education and information was vitally necessary since, as Roosevelt put it, "A Government can be no better than the public opinion which sustains it."

The same is true today. Those who share the values and spirit of the New Deal need to educate and inform their fellow citizens so that this election will reflect the true voice of the people, not the distortions of an echo chamber created by narrow and selfish interests. In the words of FDR, "The people of America know the heart and know the purpose of their Government. They and we will not retreat."

Philip Klinkner is the James S. Sherman Professor of Government at Hamilton College. He is the author (with Rogers Smith) of The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America and he is currently writing a book on the 1936 election.

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"For Men and Not for Property": Lessons for the President from Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt

Jan 5, 2012David B. Woolner

In channeling TR, perhaps Obama will channel both men's mission to use government to ensure a more equal society.

"In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity." -Theodore Roosevelt

In channeling TR, perhaps Obama will channel both men's mission to use government to ensure a more equal society.

"In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity." -Theodore Roosevelt

It was just a month ago that President Obama traveled to Osawatomie, Kansas to lay out a new, more populist agenda for his re-election campaign and to press Congress to extend the two percent payroll tax cut he instigated last year. He chose to travel to Osawatomie in large part because this was the site where Theodore Roosevelt gave his famous "New Nationalism" speech. It was there that the former president excoriated the power of wealthy special interests and demanded a greater role for government in ensuring that the average American was able to enjoy equal economic and political opportunity.

In his remarks, President Obama rejected what he called "you're on your own economics." He argued strongly -- like TR did more than a century earlier -- that the triumph of democracy means not merely the triumph of the free market but the triumph, as TR said, of "an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him."

He also spoke eloquently about the alarming rise of income disparity in the United States, fueled in part by the steady decline of wages among the middle class over the past few decades and in part by the more recent decision to lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans to the lowest rates in more than half a century. This inequality, Obama continued, not only "distorts our democracy," it also makes a mockery of the perennial American belief that even those born with nothing can, through hard work, earn their way into the middle class.

As reported in the New York Times today, a number of recent studies now show that President Obama was quite correct in pointing out how hard it has become for poor Americans to move up the economic ladder. Indeed, it now appears that Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their counterparts in much of Western Europe and Canada. One alarming study, for example, found that fully 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom 20 percent income bracket stayed there as adults. Equally disturbing is the fact that the poor in America have less than their counterparts in Canada and Western Europe and hence have to work their way up from a lower position, while at the same time benefitting less from the type of social safety net available in other developed countries. This renders America's poor -- especially America's poor children -- much more vulnerable to debilitating hardships.

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The great gap that has once again emerged in the United States between the wealthy few and the seemingly permanently impoverished many, separated by a shrinking middle class, is not something that either Theodore or Franklin Roosevelt would have found acceptable. Both men, in fact, dedicated themselves to the idea, as TR said in his Osawatomie speech, that one of the "chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege." Both men also believed, to quote TR again, that the "essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows." In his day, TR noted, this struggle appeared as the effort of freemen "to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will." This was especially necessary at that time, he went on, because the "absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power."

Sadly, Theodore Roosevelt, running as a third party candidate, lost the 1912 election and hence never got the opportunity to take on the forces of special privilege he attacked so eloquently in his Osawatomie speech. But his distant cousin Franklin (who was an enormous admirer of TR) did, and in the process transformed the federal government -- for the first time in American history -- into an active instrument of social and economic justice.

It is interesting to note that Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, one a Republican and one a Democrat, consistently rank among the most popular and important presidents in American history. It is equally interesting to observe that they earned this respect not so much through compromise or equivocation, but by adhering to a political philosophy that was not afraid to take on the forces of wealth and privilege in the best interest of the country as a whole. TR called this philosophy the New Nationalism; FDR called it the New Deal. It was based, as TR said, on the idea that the executive branch of government must serve as "the steward of the public welfare," that the judiciary should "be interested primarily in human welfare rather than in property," and that the Congress "shall represent all the people rather than any one class or section of the people."

It is encouraging to see President Obama pay tribute to the progressive ideas of Theodore Roosevelt and, through him, FDR. Whether he will adhere to them in the long run is an open question. Powerful forces are certainly arrayed against him and, as evidenced by the extreme policies of the conservative right, he may have to make some hard choices about whether or not his penchant for compromise is really in the best interest of the country. Here, too, he might find strength in the words of TR, who, near the close of his Osawatomie speech, remarked:

I believe in shaping the ends of government to protect property as well as human welfare. Normally, and in the long run, the ends are the same; but whenever the alternative must be faced, I am for men and not for property...

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. He is also the co-author with Henry Henderson of FDR and the Environment.

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We Need FDR-Style Proposals to Solve All Our Big Problems

Jan 3, 2012Jon Rynn

fdr-signing-papers-150The New Deal took on many interconnected issues all at once. We need to do the same.

fdr-signing-papers-150The New Deal took on many interconnected issues all at once. We need to do the same.

Both Democrats and environmentalists seem to be searching for new sources of support, according to articles from Thomas Edsall and Leslie Kaufman. For Democrats, the problem is the state of mind of the “white working class,” while for environmentalists the problem is to convince the public that something should be done about climate change. In both cases, the dilemma is the same: the solutions offered do not solve the existing problems, and the public knows it. The working class would likely be wooed if someone proposed a government-led policy of putting millions of people to work rebuilding our infrastructure and the manufacturing base. The general public would likely back policies to prevent global warming if someone advanced a credible program of building a carbon-free economy. Both could be combined in a program that would employ tens of millions to build sustainable transportation, energy, and urban infrastructure, as I have proposed. It will take a holistic -- and therefore credible -- plan to convince voters.

Edsall’s article, and much of the discussion surrounding it, neglects to mention an obvious problem: working class voters are working class because most of them, throughout history, have had manufacturing jobs, and in the United States, those manufacturing jobs have been disappearing by the millions. The Democratic Party, for all of the policy proposals that address the decline of manufacturing, has never put forward a convincing plan to revive manufacturing and the millions of jobs that would go along with it. Surely if the central plank of the Democratic Party was to revive manufacturing -- and if there was a credible plan to do so -- then much of the white working class would come streaming back.

Part of the problem is that the Democratic Party never faced such daunting projects like rebuilding the core of the national economy. When FDR or even LBJ were president, the United States was the manufacturing colossus of the world. Their problem was to redistribute wealth, create a safety net, and increase demand for a never-ending supply of domestically manufactured goods and good, middle-class manufacturing jobs. There is no precedent in the United States for what needs to be done now -- a focused industrial policy led by the government.

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But the New Deal offers a political lesson on the importance of an interlinking set of policies that cut across issue areas, a lesson that can help both the Democratic Party and the environmental movement. FDR’s programs incorporated labor policies in the form of the Wagner Act, legalizing the activities of unions, which helped lead to a thriving middle class. It included conservation policies, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, that employed millions of people who helped to rebuild forests, parks, and agricultural areas. There was the TVA, which used a holistic approach to build up the economy of an entire region based on an energy plan. It included the first plans for a national road system, which eventually resulted in the Interstate Highway System. The mortgage industry, and thus the basis for the later housing industry, was virtually created from scratch. Social Security and the first welfare programs were designed to give people a safety net. Glass-Steagall and the Pecora Commission restructured the financial system.

The parallels are clear for what is needed today. We need millions of green jobs, and tens of millions of jobs, period. We need energy plans and a rebuilding of the agricultural system, and we need an interstate transportation system, this time centered on electric rail. We need a different financial system, perhaps centered on public banks. But what we probably most need is to interconnect all of these issues and create a base for a majority coalition of the electorate, just as the public came to support FDR’s programs under the label of the New Deal.

Similarly, policies for overcoming global warming and other environmental catastrophes will need to be incorporated into a wider rubric, perhaps a "Green New Deal," that encompasses manufacturing, jobs for the tens of millions who are unemployed or underemployed, renewable energy, transit, rebuilding infrastructure, and financial reform.

The point is not to idealize the New Deal or deify FDR. We need to learn the lessons of American history that can be useful for us today. We now face a linked set of economic crises, as did progressives in the 1930s. A program that says, “We will hire tens of millions of people” lets people know that the problem, unemployment, will be solved. A program that says, “We will build the wind farms and solar panels and transit and buildings that will make our economy carbon-free” informs people that the proposers of this kind of program know how to solve the problem. A truly believable plan has to convince people that both outcomes will be reached.

These ideas may seem politically impossible, but all great changes seem impossible before they happen. It is possible to propose policies, and the Democratic Party could propose programs that would be guaranteed to put the working class, and the rest of the employable population, to useful, well-paying work. Environmentalists could propose policies that have a reasonable chance of correcting civilization-endangering environmental problems – which would also involve putting everyone who wanted a job to work. Let’s think outside the box.

Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.

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