Joe Biden framed his bid for the presidency with a pair of historically informed October campaign speeches in evocative locations. Overlooking the battlefield at Gettysburg on October 6, he recalled a Republican president who spoke of America’s better angels and promised in Lincolnian terms, “I raise hope, not fear. Peace, not violence. Generosity, not greed. And light, not darkness. I’ll be a president who appeals to the best in us, not the worst.”
Then, on October 27, he traveled to Warm Springs, Ga., to summon the spirit of the Democratic president who delivered a New Deal. Recalling that Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled to Warm Springs seeking treatment for the paralysis he suffered after being struck with polio at age 39, Biden explained:
FDR came looking for a cure, but it was the lessons he learned here that he used to lift a nation. Humility, empathy, courage, optimism. This place represented a way forward. A way of restoration, of resilience, of healing. In the years that followed, FDR would come back to Warm Springs often to think about how to heal the nation and the world, and that’s exactly what he did. Lifting us out of a great depression, defeating tyranny, saving democracy.
Biden’s insight into the 32nd president was astute. Roosevelt’s 1932 election came in the midst of a Great Depression, and at a time when the country had been rocked by public health crises and natural disasters. He responded by embracing the power of the presidency to implement the transformational policy agenda that would come to be known as the New Deal.
As part of his crusade to advance that agenda, he seized the bully pulpit as a platform for guiding a divided nation toward bolder thinking about circumstances every bit as challenging as those the 46th president will wrestle with in a pandemic moment that has been devastating for workers, small-business owners, and family farmers. If Biden is serious about “Positioning Himself as a Modern FDR,” he would do well to study how Roosevelt identified and utilized all available tools to promote a deeper sense of solidarity and common purpose—even Thanksgiving Proclamations.
Thanksgiving Proclamations have in various forms been issued by presidents since George Washington took office in 1789. In the early 20th century, they were perfunctory statements—as they are, for the most part, these days. FDR adopted a bolder approach and Biden—who on Wednesday delivered a poignant Thanksgiving-eve statement on the fight against Covid-19–should do the same.
Roosevelt’s proclamations, poetic in character, epic in scope, addressed an anguished people—offering recognition of their difficulties, understanding of their fears, and, above all, hope for the better day that might be forged through common cause.
The 32nd president was not afraid to make blunt statements about the corrosive role of greed in a society where bankers and investors had crashed the economy and left millions in misery. This was the theme of his first Thanksgiving Proclamation, issued on November 21, 1933:
May we ask guidance in more surely learning the ancient truth that greed and selfishness and striving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness or good to the individual or to his neighbors.
May we be grateful for the passing of dark days; for the new spirit of dependence one on another; for the closer unity of all parts of our wide land; for the greater friendship between employers and those who toil; for a clearer knowledge by all nations that we seek no conquests and ask only honorable engagements by all peoples to respect the lands and rights of their neighbors; for the brighter day to which we can win through by seeking the help of God in a more unselfish striving for the common bettering of mankind.
This was a president who rejected the empty platitudes of “up by the bootstraps” rugged individualism and instead preached that the best response to economic uncertainty was with a citizenry united in common purpose.
It was a theme Roosevelt would return to annually as the 1930s progressed.
“During the past year we have been given courage and fortitude to meet the problems which have confronted us in our national life. Our sense of social justice has deepened. We have been given vision to make new provisions for human welfare and happiness, and in a spirit of mutual helpfulness we have cooperated to translate vision into reality,” he wrote in 1934, as the New Deal progressed. “More greatly have we turned our hearts and minds to things spiritual. We can truly say, ‘What profiteth it a nation if it gain the whole world and lose its own soul.’ With gratitude in our hearts for what has already been achieved, may we, with the help of God, dedicate ourselves anew to work for the betterment of mankind…”
A year later, concerned by the rise of European fascism, Roosevelt was at his most poetic, writing:
In traversing a period of national stress our country has been knit together in a closer fellowship of mutual interest and common purpose. We can well be grateful that more and more of our people understand and seek the greater good of the greater number. We can be grateful that selfish purpose of personal gain, at our neighbor’s loss, less strongly asserts itself. We can be grateful that peace at home is strengthened by our growing willingness to common counsel. We can be grateful that our peace with other nations continues through recognition of our peaceful purpose.
But in our appreciation of the blessings that Divine Providence has bestowed upon us in America, we shall not rejoice as the Pharisee rejoiced. War and strife still live in the world. Rather must America by example and in practice help to bind the wounds of others, strive against disorder and aggression, encourage the lessening of distrust among peoples, and advance peaceful trade and friendship. The future of many generations of mankind will be greatly guided by our acts in these present years. We hew a new trail.
Throughout his presidency, FDR kept hewing that new trail. During World War II, he spoke of the fight against totalitarianism, and the dream of a United Nations. He also broke what for his time was new ground with statements decrying racial and ethnic divisions and promoting religious diversity. Roosevelt’s proclamation for Thanksgiving Day 1941 appealed for “the establishment on earth of freedom, brotherhood, and justice.” In 1944, which FDR referred to as “this year of liberation, which has seen so many millions freed from tyrannical rule,” the lifelong Episcopalian concluded his final Thanksgiving Proclamation with an interfaith appeal: “Let every man of every creed go to his own version of the Scriptures for a renewed and strengthening contact with those eternal truths and majestic principles which have inspired such measure of true greatness as this nation has achieved.”
Having a president recognize and encourage the hewing of new trails, especially those that head in the direction of economic, social, and racial justice, may stir controversy. There will always be those who prefer that presidents go the traditional route with proclamations and pronouncements. But a new president who seeks to address the crises of these times must recognize the potential, and the power, for seizing each opening to advance a new New Deal vision for “a more unselfish striving for the common bettering of mankind.