By Dan Siegel / Original to ScheerPost
Some observers have asked recently whether Joe Biden will adopt Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a role model for his presidency. He must do so. The rhetoric and substance of an FDR-style presidency is necessary to create a new United States that can overcome the poverty, polarization, and pessimism of a nation whose recent decades suggest nothing so much as the decline of the Roman Empire.
FDR became president in 1933, a time similar to today. At least 12 million were unemployed, homeless, and hungry. The international situation was deteriorating, frightening, and getting worse. The United States was deeply divided along the lines of class and race.
I have often thought of how FDR eclipsed modern presidents in his leadership and ability to motivate people. Four years of Trump’s ineffectual, angry and divisive presidency has heightened that contrast dramatically. As 2021 begins, the U.S. death total from COVID-19 is approaching 350,000, twice what it might have been had Trump led the nation in taking the simple steps that would have slowed the contagion.
Although times change and history does not repeat itself, many of FDR’s thoughts and words are relevant to the issues Biden will face. Our new President would do well to study FDR and emulate his bold leadership.
FDR promised change when he was nominated for president:
“I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.”– FDR, July 2, 1932
FDR understood the power of words to impact public opinion. More importantly, he followed through on his words. Joe Biden must embrace today’s Green New Deal as a powerful blueprint to save the planet and put millions to work in well-paying jobs. Our divided country needs more than platitudes. The Biden administration must set a hard goal and commit to a schedule to create 10 million new jobs developing clean power, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, and extending high quality health care and education for all Americans.
In 1933, the economy was in shambles, and fascism was beginning to rise in Europe. Roosevelt’s predecessor was the pessimistic, reactionary, and dour Herbert Hoover, and the country was desperate. FDR acknowledged the tremendous challenges facing the United States and accepted the responsibility to unite the public to overcome the destruction of the Great Depression. He offered a message of hope that became the catch phrase of his presidency:
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”– FDR, inaugural address, March 4, 1933.)
Biden faces serious challenges – COVID-19, the economy in ruins, racial division, and environmental destruction. In his first 100 days, Roosevelt initiated ambitious programs to improve the economy, including legislation to reform the financial services industry and control the banks and Wall Street; provide funds for struggling farmers and prevent farm foreclosures; create job programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps to involve young people in projects to repair environmental harm and the Works Progress Administration to employ artists to enhance public spaces; and protect homeowners from foreclosures. He attacked the unemployment crisis and emphasized his government’s commitment to social justice for all:
“No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order.”– FDR, September 30, 1934
“Among American citizens, there should be no forgotten men and no forgotten races.– FDR, October 26, 1936
The flip side of unemployment and poverty entering the 2020s is the rampant and shameful growth of income inequality. Today, the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans earn more than everyone else combined, and their share of total income increases every year. The share of the nation’s wealth controlled by the richest 20 percent keeps growing. The share controlled by the top 5 percent is growing faster, even during the pandemic.
The Biden administration must develop and implement a plan to address income inequality. The tepid call to “build back better” fails to address the needs of the tens of millions for whom the Obama years were a time of stagnation or decline. A guaranteed annual income should be the first step. The tax structure needs a complete overhaul. Adopting the income tax rates of the 1950s when Republican Dwight Eisenhower was president would be a radical step in the right direction. Restoring inheritance taxes and increasing taxes on capital gains would generate the funds needed for programs to provide every American with housing and a decent standard of living. Effective controls on the financial services industry are needed to protect Americans from another Great Recession.
Reparations must be at the top of the agenda. After 400 years the United States must finally acknowledge and remediate the crimes of slavery and indigenous genocide. The issues go beyond morality. The foundations of this country’s wealth are the theft of slave labor and of indigenous property. Reparations are payback, not charity. Over 150 years ago, Frederick Douglass futilely demanded education, land, and voting rights for former slaves. Repayment, with interest, will finally create a society that is just, secure, and safe for all.
Roosevelt championed civil rights and liberties. Biden should adopt his words to beat back the racism and attacks on democracy promoted by the Trump administration. As FDR said,
“We must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all citizens, whatever their background. We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilization.”– FDR, January 9, 1940
FDR began efforts to protect the environment, using language relevant to today’s climate crisis:
“Men and nature must work hand in hand. The throwing out of balance of the resources of nature throws out of balance also the lives of men.”– FDR, January 24, 1935
Biden must do the same. This is a time for strong leadership, not simply the third term of the Obama administration. The ineffective cap and trade strategy does nothing to reduce pollution and must be discarded. Biden will re-join the Paris climate accord and must plan for carbon neutrality within 20 years. Trump’s decisions to roll back automobile efficiency, eliminate curbs on air and water pollution, and undo protections for endangered species and wilderness must be reversed.
The problems facing the United States in the early 1930s were not simple, and FDR’s social welfare and economic programs did not immediately pull the nation out of poverty. He continued to acknowledge the nation’s difficulties and to rally the public:
“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with history.”– FDR, July 27, 1936
By the time FDR’s second term began, the nation’s economic crisis had actually worsened, driven by the collapse of farming due to sustained drought and unsustainable agricultural practices in the prairie states west of the Mississippi River. Roosevelt focused his efforts on addressing poverty, unemployment, and income inequality. He created the Social Security system, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and laws to protect workers’ rights to organize:
“I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”– FDR, second inaugural address, January 20, 1937
Creating effective programs is only part of the solution. Thanks in large part to the destructiveness of Trump’s presidency, the United States is bitterly divided on many issues. The challenge for Biden is to step out of his conventional paradigm and convince people that American society can work for them. Trump’s wolf whistles have exacerbated racial, ethnic, and class divisions. Biden must address these issues. More importantly his administration must adopt programs that will convince people that they will share fairly in the nation’s wealth.
By the end of Roosevelt’s life on April 12, 1945, he had led the nation in World War II and helped create the United Nations. His unfulfilled goals for the nation provide a fitting focus for the Biden Administration:
Freedom of Speech
Freedom of Worship
Freedom from Want
Freedom from Fear– FDR, January 6, 1941
Copyright 2020 Dan Siegel