FDR in 1933: Adam Cohen on a Model for President Obama
Yesterday, I posted about president-elect Obama's reading habits, particularly the two previous presidents, Lincoln and FDR, whose responses to moments of national crisis he seems to many to be taking as models, as many are recommending he does. Today, we've asked a historian of one of those moments to what he thinks President Obama could learn from it. Adam Cohen is the Assistant Editorial Page Editor of the New York Times, and is also the author of a very well-timed book (he couldn't have imagined just how directly the historical parallels would be at this point!), Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America, which will publish during Obama's inaugural month in January. (I wouldn't be surprised if members of his team have already acquired advance copies.) And for him the parallels between the two moments are obvious and useful. Here's the short essay he wrote for us about how Obama might use FDR's first hundred days as a model for his own:
FDR in 1933: A Model for President Obama
It seems that everywhere you look these days, the comparison is being made: Barack Obama in 2009 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933.
It’s not hard to see why. Like Obama, FDR was a charismatic young Democrat running for office in troubled economic times. The banks were in crisis, unemployment was striking fear in the hearts of ordinary Americans, and many people were wondering if the economic system could be set right.
Like Obama, FDR campaigned on a platform of change, and rode the hopes of the nation to a landslide victory, ending years of Republican dominance in Washington. Also like Obama, he swept a heavily Democratic Senate and House of Representatives into office with him.
Obama’s top advisors are looking to the start of FDR’s presidency as a model for how to begin their own administration. A recent New York magazine article quoted one member of Obama’s kitchen cabinet saying: "A lot of people around Barack are reading books about FDR’s first hundred days."
That strikes me as very smart--and not only because I have just written a book about FDR’s first hundred days.
FDR was an exemplary leader for troubled times. He was confident and unafraid--a point he made clearly in his inaugural address, with its most famous line: "the only thing we have to fear itself."
He was also pragmatic and open-minded. He did not arrive in Washington with fixed ideas about how to solve the nation's problems. He knew what he wanted to get done--help the urban unemployed, bring relief to the nation’s beleaguered Farm Belt, get business up and running again--and he was open to a wide array of ideas for how to make these things happen.
My book focuses on FDR’s inner circle, and I am convinced it is the key to what made FDR’s first hundred days such a success. He surrounded himself with remarkable people:
- Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the first woman Cabinet member, who was an extraordinary advocate for workers and the unemployed;
- Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace, a brilliant farmer and farm leader;
- Federal Relief Administrator Harry Hopkins, a dynamic social worker who had created the nation’s first state relief program in New York;
- Budget Director Lewis Douglas, the administration’s leading conservative, who fought against high-spending programs, and for a balanced budget; and
- Raymond Moley, his top aide, who greased the wheels from inside the White House.
FDR, who had promised the nation "action, and action now" did not begin with a firm idea of what the New Deal he had promised the nation would consist of.
In fact, Moley famously declared that "to look upon these policies as the result of a unified plan was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter’s tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy’s bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator."
Roosevelt asked his inner circle to bring him their best ideas, which they did--and he carefully chose among them. Sam Rayburn, the Texas Democrat who later became House Speaker, declared that Roosevelt was "the best jury to listen and decide that I ever saw."
At the beginning of the Hundred Days, Roosevelt was under the thrall of Douglas, and pushed through Congress a very un-New Deal-like law that cut federal spending by 25 percent. By the end, however, Perkins, Wallace, and Hopkins were the biggest influences on Roosevelt, and they helped fashion an extraordinary program for battling the Depression.
With constant prodding from Perkins, FDR signed onto a large-scale public works program--something he had long opposed--that put the jobless to work and rescued millions of families from destitution. Hopkins hammered out the first federal welfare program, which literally prevented the worst off Americans from starving. Wallace drafted a farm bill that saved farmers and farm families.
The Hundred Days were an enormously exciting time. The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said that FDR served up "a presidential barrage of ideas and programs unlike anything known to American history." The Hundred Days programs rescued the nation from dark times, and they also--as my book argues--built the foundation for modern America, by introducing the idea of an activist federal government that concerned itself with the well-being of its citizens.
Obama will take office facing perhaps the greatest challenges any new president has faced since FDR took the oath of office in 1933. FDR--and the extraordinary people around him--should be a model for the Obama administration on how to confront, and triumph over, hard times.