What FDR could teach Obama

Joyce Appleby is professor emeritus of history at UCLA and the co-director of the History News Service.

President Obama’s $3.55-trillion budget tackles the nation’s highest priorities while promising to cut deficits in the long run. Breathtakingly bold and refreshingly honest, the budget speaks louder than words about Obama’s confident leadership. But, alas, it only makes more acute the dilemma he faces.

Last month, House Republicans voted unanimously against his stimulus plan, along with 37 Republican senators. Their solidarity turned Obama’s bipartisan overtures into symbolic gestures with grave practical consequences. Obama has presented a budget for the next 10 years, but his programs already face an uncertain future unless he can repeat President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s electoral triumph of 1934.

Currently, Republicans have neutralized the Democrats’ 17-vote majority in the Senate by threatening to filibuster any measures they don’t like. It takes a supermajority of 60 votes to end any filibuster, giving the 41 Republican senators a mighty weapon. Passage of the president’s bill will depend on the votes of maverick Republicans and the Senate’s two independents, assuming there are no Democratic defections or absences.

Add to this situation the historical norm that the president’s party loses congressional members in off-year elections. A strong victory, such as Obama’s last November, increases the chance of the winning party losing congressional seats. Without Obama’s coattails, Democratic candidates will have more trouble winning. Given all this, it becomes obvious that time is short for fulfilling Obama’s ambitious proposals for healthcare, energy independence, education and tax increases.

In similar circumstances, Roosevelt recognized the limited horizon he had, and he shared the same sense of urgency about moving the country in a new direction. Roosevelt’s challenge was rendered scarier by the rise of Adolf Hitler. The road became even rockier for Roosevelt when his New Deal coalition began to come apart. Without full support from his party’s progressives, his bills needed votes from his party’s conservatives -- typically lawmakers of the solidly Democratic South, who had their own agenda.


An astute politician, FDR saw the days ahead bringing schisms among his supporters, comebacks from the opposing party and public disenchantment with the government’s effectiveness. It was then that he looked beyond the politics of Congress and the Supreme Court to the fourth, informal branch of American government: the public. He would defy the odds of losing in the 1934 off-year election by carefully cultivating the ordinary men and women who had voted for him.

The first media-savvy president, Roosevelt initiated radio talks broadcast throughout the nation. Radio was then a new phenomenon in the U.S., and became the main provider of entertainment and news for many of the poor people who constituted the Democratic constituency.

In his “fireside chats,” Roosevelt reassured a nervous people that New Deal measures were helping to get the country back on its feet. With a conversational tone, he created a folksy persona -- his favorite song was “Home on the Range” -- that conveyed calm, confident authority.

FDR kept tabs on the press by regularly canvassing hundreds of local papers. This took a strong stomach, because nine out of 10 of them often described him as a dictator intent on destroying the Constitution in order to plunge the U.S. into the same communist rat hole as the Russians. Turning their vitriol into good-humored joshing, he managed to infuriate his opponents and delight his friends. Where Obama tends to placate his critics, Roosevelt played them.

Roosevelt’s opponents on the left were even more worrisome than those on the right, especially Sen. Huey Long of Louisiana. The wily “Kingfish” launched the Share-Our-Wealth Society in 1934 in a preliminary bid for the presidency. His idea of redistributing wealth by raising inheritance and income taxes had considerable appeal at a time when nearly 30% of American men were unemployed.

A demagogue with few scruples, Long was almost as effective as Roosevelt in reaching people through radio. But he lacked Roosevelt’s political know-how, which was never better displayed than when he used the fears Long aroused to win support for Democrats.

Recognizing the public’s yearning for some certainty in their lives, Roosevelt, in the summer of 1934, proposed a study group to explore a broad social security program based on employee and employer contributions. The president had shrewdly positioned his party between Long’s crackpot schemes to soak the rich and the business community’s adamant refusal to support a social safety net. Roosevelt counted on the virulence of his opponents to spread word of his plan. As they fulminated, he reassured Americans that he was actually strengthening their traditional institutions.

When the votes were counted that November, the Democrats had won nine new seats in the House and an even more astounding nine new Senate seats, giving the party a two-thirds, filibuster-proof control of Congress. The gain in seats and the margin of control made it an unprecedented victory, which has not been repeated since, although presidents Clinton and George W. Bush did garner some new members in the off-year elections of 1998 and 2002.

Does Roosevelt furnish a template for Obama? The two men share a lot. As president, both face the awesome task of reviving the economy. Obama’s personal popularity outstrips support for his party, as did FDR’s. Of necessity, Obama’s hope for matching Roosevelt’s successful record of reform and recovery is going to rest on his pulling off an electoral victory in 2010 like FDR’s 76 years ago.