Ira Chernus

Looking back on Barack Obama’s first post-election interview with “60 Minutes,” no one should be surprised that he admitted he’s reading about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office. In fact, the president-elect — evidently taking no chances — is reportedly reading two books: Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope and Jean Edward Smith’s FDR. As he told “Sixty Minutes,” his administration will emulate FDR’s “willingness to try things and experiment… If something doesn’t work, [we’re] gonna try something else until [we] find something that does.” That’s one reason Obama, like FDR, has claimed that he wants advisors who will offer him a wide variety of viewpoints.

Not too wide, however. In his first hundred days, Roosevelt made it clear that he — like Obama — considered himself a reformer, but distinctly not a radical. He certainly didn’t intend to use the economic crisis of 1932 to create a society of full economic equality and social justice. He just wanted to make sure that every American had at least a bare minimum of economic security.

FDR’s overriding goal was, in reality, to head off movements for fundamental change. As he wrote privately before he became president, it was “time for the country to become fairly radical,” but only “for a generation” — because “history shows that where this occurs occasionally, nations are saved from revolution.”

“There will be a gain throughout our country of communistic thought,” Roosevelt also warned, “unless we can keep democracy up to its old ideals and its original purposes.” Years later, he would boast that his greatest achievement was saving the capitalist system.

Obama ended his “Sixty Minutes” interview on a similar note: “Our basic principle that this is a free market system and that that has worked for us, that it creates innovation and risk taking, I think that’s a principle that we’ve gotta hold to.” Though he talks about the benefits of “spreading the wealth around,” like his famous predecessor, he most certainly doesn’t want to spread it too fast or too far, nor does his team of economic advisers.

But the president-elect may be reading the wrong history. Perhaps, instead of reading about Roosevelt’s first hundred days, he should read Chapter 16 of Smith’s FDR, which describes how growing political pressure kept Roosevelt looking over his left shoulder. By 1934, new labor organizations like the Congress of Industrial Organizations, charismatic leaders like Louisiana’s Governor Huey Long, and social innovators like California physician Francis Townsend were offering concrete plans to spread the wealth far faster and wider than Roosevelt’s New Deal ever would. Continuing economic catastrophe, fused with the mood of hope and change that he himself had stirred up, gave rise to the threat that the president might be unseated if he did not move leftwards.

Consummate politician that he was, Roosevelt did move — just far enough to ensure his reelection. In the 1936 campaign, he ratcheted up the rhetoric, fiercely attacking the “economic royalists” who controlled the “corporations, banks, and securities.” It was the kind of language that would please any 2008 progressive. He decried the injustice of a country where more than half the wealth was controlled by less than 200 big corporations, all tied together by interlocking directorates and banks. This small group, he insisted, had established “a new industrial dictatorship” — far stronger words than we’re used to today — with “an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor — other people’s lives.” To Americans, FDR pledged to master these “economic royalists” who held the public in “economic slavery.”

In the most important speech of the campaign, he promised to “increase wages that spell starvation… wipe out sweatshops… provide useful work for the needy unemployed… end monopoly in business… protect the consumer against unnecessary price spreads, against the costs that are added by monopoly and speculation… support collective bargaining… work for the regulation of security issues… for the wiping out of slums.” For all these things, FDR exclaimed, “and for a multitude of things like them we have only just begun to fight.”

That 1936 campaign is the history both a politically canny president-elect and progressives should be reading right now. It would remind him, and teach us, that a centrist president can be pushed, under the pressure of tough times and rising public hopes, in our direction — if, that is, we are dedicated, well-organized, and persistent enough. Under pressure, Roosevelt moved an agenda that, in 1932, sounded radical indeed into the respectable center of American politics only four years later.

It was the kind of agenda that many liberal or even centrist Americans came to support by 1936. Today, polling data show that a majority of Americans who call themselves liberal or centrist agree with many of the most prominent progressive stances of this moment, including

* paying higher taxes to receive more government services;

* substantial increases in taxes on corporations and the rich;

* strict controls on the financial investment market;

* significant public expenditures to guarantee universal health care, provide higher education for all who want it, and promote renewable energy technologies;

* dramatic steps to preserve and improve the environment;

* the replacing of free trade policies with fair trade policies;

* vigorously protecting reproductive rights.

The overriding problem for progressives is that so many voters will reject a candidate or a movement promoting this kind of progressive platform, even though they agree individually with most of that candidate’s or that movement’s policy positions. If that is to change in a way Americans can believe in, and so push President Barack Obama in new directions, we have to be politically smarter…


Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Having written extensively on Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and George W. Bush, he is now writing a book tentatively titled “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Origins of the National Insecurity State.” He can be contacted at

Copyright 2008 Ira Chernus

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