Tuesday, December 2, 2008

FDR Called for the Rights of the Individual; Will Obama Do the Same?


President-elect Barack Obama has not saved the economy yet, but his victory last month is going a long way toward saving the publishing industry.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's two-year-old book Team of Rivals has becoming a bestseller on the heels of countless references to it and Obama's desire to create the same open-ended discussion in his own cabinet. (Listen to Kearns Goodwin discuss the book at The Commonwealth Club.) Of course, newspapers and magazines around the country couldn't keep enough copies on newsstands with the visage of Obama during the days after the election.

Now, it's all about making the link between the Depression-era beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency and Obama's today.

One of the better and most specific books concerning our current period of economic upheaval and presidential transition is Jonathan Alter's The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.

Alter posits that FDR's common jibe of being a "traitor to his class" was born out of his battle with polio. This debilitating illness forced him to gain an understanding with those less fortunate. It could be said that Obama's background and his fight with race in America would allow for the same empathy.

One interesting chapter in the book details how FDR broke convention tradition by accepting the nomination the day after. Though flying by aircraft was not particularly safe in 1932, FDR flew to Chicago for the mere spectacle of such arrival. Recall how Obama, on short notice, chose to accept the nomination in an 80,000-seat football stadium instead of at the convention hall and packed nearly 100,000 into Chicago's Grant Park on election night.

But it is one of FDR's most famous speeches that reveals a plausible connection between the two leaders.

On September 23, 1932, he gave what Alter calls "a dividing line in his political evolution." during a speech at The Commonwealth Club of California. The speech ranks as one of the club's most famous moments. (Read the entire speech here.)

The address has been characterized as un-Roosevelt-like in its clarity and bluntness. Alter says this was because the speech was barely read over beforehand by FDR; therefore, the candidate was unable to "sand the edges and apply his usual caution."

The Commonwealth Club speech is now seen as the first clear rationale behind the New Deal and, more important, redefined the idea of the individual. Some of FDR's rhetoric seems pedestrian today, yet it was revolutionary to a country set in an economic free fall and wallowing in self-doubt.

Every man has a right to life; and this means that he has also a right to make a comfortable living. He may by sloth or crime decline to exercise that right; but it may not be denied him. We have no actual famine or death; our industrial and agricultural mechanism can produce enough and to spare. Our government formal and informal, political and economic, owes to every one an avenue to possess himself of a portion of that plenty sufficient for his needs, through his own work.

University of Chicago professors Jane Dailey and David Nirenberg bring the speech and the current state of our financial atmosphere into perspective in an article in Dissent magazine from last September.

As we watch (at current estimates) more than a trillion dollars in collective savings disappear into the whirlpool that was once Wall Street, we are already hearing calls for such restrictions and regulations. These calls are not misplaced, but they are not enough. We also need what Roosevelt provided three-quarters of a century ago: a politically convincing and principled way of imagining a relationship between the economic and political rights of the individual and those of the collective, which he called the “economic constitutional order.”

They go on to urge this simple bit of advice: "In order to know what we want to regulate or whom we have to bailout, we first need to know what and whom we want to protect."


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