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FDR in 1933: Adam Cohen on a Model for President Obama

159420196x01_mzzzzzzz_ 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.

Comments

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So, seriously, what brilliant ideas could YOU guys have come up with that would have been better? I don't know about you, but I'm gonna be throwing a "Bush is gone" party, and thank the GODS that McLame didn't get in. FDR helped a lot of people that would have died of starvation otherwise. Not that YOU care, I'm sure!

When FDR took over, there was 30% unemployment. By the time the war started, there was 5% unemployment. How did he do this? He put 25% of all Americans to work in a giant bureaucratic government.

Thanks to FDR, 25% of all working Americans STILL work as government employees. Are we supposed to be grateful to him for this fiasco?

Interesting yes - smart no. What FDR and his buddies did was more akin to political blitzkrieg and the USA has never really recovered. Why has it ended up in today’s mess? FDR governed by emotion (Maternalism), and not by rationalism (Paternalism) therefore he looked to make band-aid type short term fix-ups, rather than any vision for the long term at all. If the new administration apes the policies of the FDR era, they may appear to be helpful, but under the bright clean new bandage, the turmoil and ferment of the infection still goes on. The idea that Mother (state)knows best has been proven wrong. The author is not clear thinking logical, or rational enough to see that his argument has turned in on its self. The author says that "the idea of an activist federal government that" meddles with the well-being of its citizens lives has "built the foundation for modern America,"
So the foundations, so go the building. If this ‘modern America’that FDR laid the foundations for is so wonderful, one has to wonder what all the call for change is about. That the President elect is of the same emotional ilk is plain to see, by the number of women who voted for him. They recognise the maternalistic emotional ideology of the man and are drawn to it - as one of their own kind - without realising why it is. America now takes another giant stride down this road of emotive ideological rhetoric, believing in change to ????
FDR was not "confident and unafraid" his was the confidence of the uninformed.To say that he arrived in Washington with 'fixed' ideas is correct, lets face it he arrived in Washington with NO ideas.FDR may have chosen the best ideas, - but they were unplanned, not costed,and nobody had had the rational to think through these ideas to see where they might lead, and what their consequences may be. America needed today a leadership of strong clear-sighted rational thinkers, but maybe after 75 years they have been relegated to the sidelines and all she could hope for is more of the same. If this is an historical moment and they have gone back to the wrong recipe, then maybe it will be an historical tipping point from which there maybe no way back for a long, long time.

FDR had a resume. O has???

FDR had a resume. O has???

FDR had a resume. O has???

I certainly hope that Obama's presidency doesn't turn out like FDR's. FDR's price and wage controls undoubtably extended (and worsened) the Great Depression. FDR greatly expanded the Executive Office, often by-passing Congress. After the Supreme Court struck down many of FDR's policies, he responded by packing the Supreme Court and, for the first time in US history, politicized what was once a non-political branch of the government. Finally, FDR was so enamored with Stalin that he willing approved a Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe thereby proscribing millions of Europeans to a tyranny worse than the Nazis. Let us all pray that Obama picks another former president as his role model.

Does this guy think we have no other sources than the NY Times?

First, the Democrats already controlled BOTH houses of Congress since the 2006 elections. This election certainly increased the Democrats advantage, but this statement "he swept a heavily Democratic Senate and House of Representatives into office with him." is highly misleading as it implies that the Republicans were in charge prior to the 2008 election.

Second "Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the first woman Cabinet member, who was an extraordinary advocate for workers and the unemployed;". She must have been one hell of an "advocate" to make sure labor prices stayed artificially high so 20%-25% of the workforce remained out of work of a decade. What a great advocate!!

Results, not intentions, are what matter.

So, with this advice, I guess we can expect to get right out of this depression - once we have entered WWIII. FDR's policies would have us still to this day mired in depression, without the intervention of the war.

Unfortunately, FDR's New Deal policies also prolonged the Great Depression by 7 years:

http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/FDR-s-Policies-Prolonged-Depression-5409.aspx?RelNum=5409

Trouble is, FDR prolonged the Depression significantly with his policies. Anti-competitive practices and unpredictable government meddling only made the depression far longer than it should have been. What President-Elect Obama should be learning from FDR is what NOT to do.

That is a frightening prospect.

Tom said...

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."

Tom, double check your quote from FDR.

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