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Obama Should Borrow a Page From FDR This Labor Day | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Obama Should Borrow a Page From FDR This Labor Day

President Obama will speak in Milwaukee this Labor Day, his second Wisconsin appearance in as many months.

The president’s attentiveness to the state is notable, if perhaps somewhat less than altruistic.

This is, after all, an election year. And Wisconsin is the swingingest of swing states—a state where a governorship that has been in Democratic hands could be lost, and where a Senate seat and at least one US House seat are vulnerable.

So, this Labor Day, Obama wants to reconnect with voters in a state that gave him overwhelming support in his 2008 campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination and the presidency.

Unfortunately, polls suggest that Wisconsinites—like residents of other Midwestern swing states—are not quite so impressed with Obama as they were two years ago. It is not that the people of the state have given up on the guy. But they are looking for something more than managerial pronouncements about the economic shambles that he inherited from George Bush and Dick Cheney.

Midwesterners are not naive and nostalgic.

They know that Bush and Cheney did not "get it."

What they’re not so sure about is whether Obama "gets" it.

To answer the question, the president would do well to borrow a page from the wisest of his predecessors.

Seventy-six years ago this summer, Franklin Roosevelt came to another Wisconsin city, Green Bay, at a similar point in his presidency.

Like Obama, FDR had been elected on a promise of "hope” and “change."

Like Obama, FDR had tried with mixed success to deliver on that promise.

In Green Bay, in the summer of 1934, the thirty-second president needed to explain to a crowd that was sympathetic but worried that the economic wrangling in which he and his administration was engaged had to be seen in perspective—not just the perspective of the presidency of the man he replaced, Herbert Hoover, but the perspective of the long American struggle between a privileged few that engaged in the "private means of exploitation" and the great many that had "waged a long and bitter fight for [their] rights."

Roosevelt did this with a history lesson, of a sort, in which he traced back to the founding of the republic in to recount the long fight "against those forces which disregard human cooperation and human rights in seeking that kind of individual profit which is gained at the expense of his fellows."

That fight between patriotic proponents of economic justice and the Tory defenders of an old economic royalism had, Roosevelt argued, come to a head with the arrival of the Great Depression.

Recalling the 1932 election that swept Democrats to power and ushered in the New Deal era, the president argued, "In the great national movement that culminated over a year ago, people joined with enthusiasm. They lent hand and voice to the common cause, irrespective of many older political traditions. They saw the dawn of a new day. They were on the march; they were coming back into the possession of their own home land."

"As the humble instruments of their vision and their power, those of us who were chosen to serve them in 1932 turned to the great task," Roosevelt continued. "In one year and five months, the people of the United States have received at least a partial answer to their demands for action; and neither the demand nor the action has reached the end of the road."

The primary barrier to action, the president explained, was erected by those who still entertained the fantasy who argued that FDR could restore confidence only by "tell[ing] the people of the United States that all supervision by all forms of Government, Federal and State, over all forms of human activity called business should be forthwith abolished."

So, like Obama, Roosevelt faced an opposition that claimed government was the problem.

Unlike Obama, however, Roosevelt refused to even entertain—let alone embrace—the absurd constructs of the private-sector fabulists who "would repeal all laws, State or national, which regulate business—that a utility could henceforth charge any rate, unreasonable or otherwise; that the railroads could go back to rebates and other secret agreements; that the processors of food stuffs could disregard all rules of health and of good faith; that the unregulated wild-cat banking of a century ago could be restored; that fraudulent securities and watered stock could be palmed off on the public; that stock manipulation which caused panics and enriched insiders could go unchecked."

"In fact," the president continued, "if we were to listen to [the anti-government crowd], the old law of the tooth and the claw would reign in our Nation once more."

"The people of the United States will not restore that ancient order," thundered Roosevelt. "There is no lack of confidence on the part of those business men, farmers and workers who clearly read the signs of the times. Sound economic improvement comes from the improved conditions of the whole population and not a small fraction thereof."

With those words, Roosevelt took a side.

He did not imagine that it was possible to compromise with those who wanted to return to the "tooth and claw" past.

No, he would stand against the Tories and for the new order where it was understood that the purpose of government was to achieve "the improved conditions of the whole population and not a small fraction thereof."


Were Obama to take a similar stand this Labor Day, were he to echo Roosevelt’s call for economic justice, the energy of this election year would shift—in Wisconsin and nationally—because voters would know, finally, which side their president was on.

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