Obama’s Challenge: Encourage Social Movements and Other Lessons From FDR and the Great Depression

As Obama prepared his economic recovery plan, he read Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment, (Simon and Shuster, 2006) about FDR’s rise to the presidency and his first 100 days. Although […]

As Obama prepared his economic recovery plan, he read Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment, (Simon and Shuster, 2006) about FDR’s rise to the presidency and his first 100 days. Although Alter’s engrossing and readable book was not intended to give advice to the incoming president, it is very helpful for understanding Obama’s upcoming challenges and his approach to change.

Alter’s historical account brings to mind some uncanny similarities between Obama and Roosevelt’s rise to the presidency. Roosevelt had to overcome a devastating disability — polio. Obama had to overcome the disadvantage of racial and ethnic discrimination. Alter shows how Roosevelt’s agonizing triumph over polio led him to bond with fellow sufferers and helped him discover “traits that would prove instrumental to the presidency” — a good-natured easy friendliness and an empathy for the oppressed. Obama has developed a similar openness and compassion gained through a searching self-discovery as he grew up in two different worlds as well as the frustrating efforts he faced when he organized the poor in Chicago. Like Roosevelt, Obama exudes a hard-to-understand confidence, only partly explained by their mothers who raised them to be self-confident. And of course, when Roosevelt took office, the Depression had hit, banks were shut down, the stock market had crashed and unemployment was soaring. Obama is taking office in the worst economic crisis the nation has faces since the Depression.

To address the crisis, Obama, like Roosevelt, seems to personify the hope the American people are seeking amidst the anguish. Obama, like Roosevelt, has called for the renewal of “widespread economic security,” is beginning his presidency with a call for unity, and seems committed to compromise and experiment, above all to act. Alter reminds us that FDR’s most important line in his first Inaugural speech was his call for “action and action now.” Following Roosevelt, Obama often stresses the importance of immediate action.

The similarities between the 1930s and today extend beyond Obama and Roosevelt. Republican opposition acted similarly. For example, despite the danger of a massive number of home foreclosures, Hoover in the thirties and Bush W. today, failed to directly help those homeowners, worsening the economy. Today’s crisis of capitalism, like the Depression, was caused by the greed and corruption of big finance and their political and laissez-faire academic allies.


There are major differences. The economy of the Great Depression was much worse. Conditions were so bad, as Alter recalls, that it gave rise to authoritarian ideologies challenging democratic capitalism. He quotes Arthur Krock of the New York Times comparing the mood in Washington on Roosevelt’s Inauguration Day to “a beleaguered capital in wartime.” Communism had captured the imagination of many on the left. “In 1932,” Alter says, “Fascism was socially acceptable and even a little trendy.” One senator told Roosevelt, “If ever this country needed a Mussolini, it needs one now.” Walter Lippmann, the venerable sage, told Roosevelt, “The situation is critical. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.” No one is calling for Obama to assume dictatorial powers and there are no fundamental ideologies competing with democratic capitalism. In fact, Republican rule based on Christian fundamentalism, the religious belief in an unfettered free market, and crony capitalism has been shattered.

Also as Alter has pointed out in a recent Newsweek column, the sequencing of events is different. In the early 1930s the economy collapsed first, setting off a banking crisis. Today it’s a banking crisis that caused the economic collapse. “Where Hoover launched a modest intervention in the economy called the Reconstruction Finance Corporation,” says Alter, “Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson are investing taxpayer money much more heavily.”

Overcoming the Legislative Impasse

Obama is bent on passing a sweeping economic agenda to create and save jobs through tax cuts and public spending on roads, bridges, schools, health care as well as clean energy technology that would make the United States less dependent on foreign oil. Will the public support Obama? Can Obama lead us out of the recession and transform the nation in a new fundamental way? He will face severe barriers to his progressive agenda. Since Obama won’t have a veto proof Congress, he will need the legislative support of conservative blue dog Democrats and moderate Republicans. Obama, unlike Roosevelt, will face many more industry lobbyists with more corporate money as well as a much better organized conservative movement. Our federal system of checks and balances always makes bold action difficult.

Robert Kuttner observes in his insightful new book, Obama’s Challenge, that other transformative presidents who changed the country’s way of thinking about itself were great party builders. Kuttner quotes the eminent historian James Macgregor Burns.

In our constitutional system, with its structural bias against activist government, Burns notes that it takes strong parties to bridge over ‘the fragmentation inherent in checks and balances in federalism,’ to allow administrations to enact their programs. But strong political parties are not enough to bring about fundamental change.

Fortunately, Obama, unlike Bill Clinton, is according to Kuttner, a committed party builder and this will help him get some of those blue dog Democrats.

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Social Movements

The most important difference between then and now is that Roosevelt had several social movements pushing him. Huey Long and Father Coughlin spearheaded a populist movement against inequalities of wealth and power that accompanied industrialization. Tenant organizers protested evictions. As Alter reports, “Townsend Clubs” spouted across the country representing between two million and five million members of an old age insurance program. The labor movement was on the rise organizing massive strikes and protests throughout the country and garnering the support of political leaders. In 1937 after workers had taken over a number of auto plants, Democratic Governor Frank Murphy refused to order the National Guard to eject the workers even after they had defied a court injunction to vacate the factories.

FDR recognized that his ability to push New Deal legislation through Congress depended on the pressure generated by these movements. When FDR was confronted with activists who were belaboring a point, he said, “OK, you’ve convinced me. Now go out and put pressure on me.” As these movements grew, Roosevelt used his bully pulpit to promote legislation guaranteeing unions a right to organize workers and social security. Roosevelt chose a left-of-center pragmatic approach, and with the help of the labor and other left populist movements, FDR revitalized our democracy, saved capitalism from the capitalists, and transformed the way we view the role of government.

Other transformative presidents had great social movements supporting and pushing them. Lincoln had the abolitionists, Johnson the civil-rights activists and Reagan the conservative movement.

The American people are ready for big changes. Although deeply cynical about the capacity of government to act competently, polls indicate that 64 percent of the public favors expanding public investment even if it means more deficit spending. But if Obama is to succeed, he will need a social movement to help propel him forward.

Kuttner suggests that Obama shrewd grasp of the 21st century form of grassroots activism — the Internet will also help him avoid a legislative impasse. Obama has built his own grass-roots organization on the Internet and in many field offices. But there is big difference between this and a social movement. As George Packer observes in the New Yorker, earlier movements were independent of any president, whereas Obama’s movement didn’t exist before his candidacy. “Throughout the campaign, Obama spoke of change coming from the bottom up rather than from the top down, but every time I heard him tell a crowd, ‘This has never been about me. It’s about you,’ he seemed to be saying just the opposite. The Obama movement was born in the meeting between a man and a historical moment; if he had died in the middle of the campaign, that movement would have died with him — proof that, whatever passions it has stirred, it remains something less than a durable social force.”

The Internet activists such as the DailyKos and MoveOn.org have proved to be effective fund-raising vehicles and the Internet could be used for good governance, such as insuring transparency and documenting federal government activity online. Obama could turn his large organization, and its generational energy into a political coalition. Obama will certainly use his huge e-mail list to inform his followers about crucial, but controversial issues and bills to generate grassroots pressure on members of Congress.

But neither the Internet activists or the groups funded by the billionaires of the left, or today’s union and environmental organizations, are likely to provide the kind of energy, passion, certainty and unity of the social movements organized by the Christian right during the 80s and 90s, SNCC, CORE, and SCLC in the 60s, and the auto, mine and workers of the 30s. National groups such as the NAACP and the Washington based U.S. Action, which had led a successful to defeat Bush’s attempt to privatize social security, have not built the kind of mobilizing culture within their local affiliates that would encourage their members to engage in contentious lobbying and direct action. Community organizing networks such as ACORN and the Industrial Areas Foundation, that have so much in common, including mobilizing cultures, rarely coordinate their activities and have not developed a sense of common history or purpose.

The Obama agenda is, as George Packer noted, “… a list of issues that have different constituencies rather than a single, overarching struggle for freedom or justice.” Without a movement behind him, Obama won’t have the power to overcome the opposition a transformative agenda. Will a social movement emerge over the next few years with the kind of clarity and coherence that empowered earlier ones?

What will Obama do if he suffers stinging defeats for such progressive measures as the Employee Free Choice Act? By the time FDR started his second term, big business and the right wing opposed him every step of the way. Bipartisanship was waning. With the support of the union and other grassroots movements, Roosevelt began using populist attacks against the rich and powerful, which in turn gave more legitimacy the movements from below. His second acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic convention attacked the “economic royalists” and “privileged princes” of “economic dynasties” who had “created a new despotism.” In that campaign’s final speech Roosevelt said, “I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.” FDR used revolutionary rhetoric to voice “anger and resentment,” Alter writes, “without destroying the system.”

Alter’s entertaining book provides a fascinating look into Roosevelt’s leadership style and how, during his first hundred days in office, he began to shift our view of the role of government. Roosevelt had great political instincts and a commanding personality to enact bold new policies. His close personal link with the people, his brilliant speeches and the innovative use of the media helped sell his early agenda. Obama seems to have the talent to do the same. But only if a powerful social movements grow will he be able to save the economy and be a truly transformative president.

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