What Obama can learn from FDR

In 1934, President Roosevelt traveled to Green Bay, Wisconsin to support working families who were struggling against the equivalent of today’s Koch brothers. By doing so, he demonstrated to the people of the Midwest that he was on their side in the struggle against corporations and Wall Street. His direct support of working people, through his policies and actions, and his willingness to stand up to moneyed interests, won him spectacular political success—something President Obama could have if he did the same.

Today teachers and other public sector union workers of Wisconsin are battling against the extreme right wing agenda of Republican Governor Scott Walker. Although he did not campaign on these issues, Walker has declared war on public sector unions, given tax breaks to the wealthy, cut services to working families, and has plans to privatize state assets.

The hundreds of thousands who braved the bitter cold last January to protest Governor Walker’s extreme measures, and who are still battling to recall Walker next year, could use the same kind of support from President Obama that FDR gave workers in Wisconsin in 1934. But, since the demonstrations in Madison began, President Obama—who vowed during his campaign to walk the picket line whenever union workers were threatened—has been missing in action. And, in his recent Mid Western tour, he chose to steer clear of the political hot bed of Wisconsin.

Many of us are longing for candidate Obama to reappear and take a strong stand for working families against the greed of Wall Street and billionaires such as the Koch Brothers. Endless compromise in favor of their representatives—the Republican Party—is not helping us recover as a nation. In these difficult times, we, the people, need a strong advocate.

Like Obama today, FDR faced a harping demand from the Right for deregulation and small government as a solution to the country’s economic woes. But, unlike Obama who has not been clear where he stands, FDR scoffed at their self-serving ideas. His speech is as relevant and inspiring today as it was when he delivered it in Green Bay 77 years ago.  The following is an excerpt. For the full speech, click here.

People know also that the average man in Wisconsin waged a long and bitter fight for his rights. Here, and in the Nation as a whole, in the Nation at large . . . man has been fighting . . . against those forces which disregard human cooperation and human rights, in seeking that kind of individual profit which is gained at the expense of his fellows . . .

In the great national movement that culminated over a year ago [1933], people joined with enthusiasm. They lent hand and voice to the common cause, irrespective of many older political traditions. They saw the dawn of a new day. They were on the march; they were coming back into the possession of their own home land.

As the humble instruments of their vision and their power, those of us who were chosen to serve them in 1932 turned to the great task. In one year and five months, the people of the United States have received at least a partial answer to their demands for action; and neither the demand nor the action has reached the end of the road. . . .

Before I left on my trip . . . I received two letters from important men, both of them pleading that I say something to restore confidence. To both of them I wrote identical answers: “What would you like to have me say?” From one of them I have received no reply at all in six weeks. I take it that he is still wondering how to answer. The other man wrote me frankly that in his judgment the way to restore confidence was for me to tell the people of the United States that all supervision by all forms of Government, Federal and State, over all forms of human activity called business should be forthwith abolished.

Now, my friends, in other words, that man was frank enough to imply that he would repeal all laws, State or national, which regulate business—that a utility could henceforth charge any rate, unreasonable or otherwise; that the railroads could go back to rebates and other secret agreements; that the processors of food stuffs could disregard all rules of health and of good faith; that the unregulated wild-cat banking of a century ago could be restored; that fraudulent securities and watered stock could be palmed off on the public; that stock manipulation which caused panics and enriched insiders could go unchecked. In fact, my friends, if we were to listen to him and his type, the old law of the tooth and the claw would reign in our Nation once more.

The people of the United States will not restore that ancient order. There is no lack of confidence on the part of those business men, farmers and workers who clearly read the signs of the times. Sound economic improvement comes from the improved conditions of the whole population and not a small fraction thereof.

Those who would measure confidence in this country in the future must look first to the average citizen . . .

We who support this New Deal do so because it is a square deal and because it is essential to the preservation of security and happiness in a free society such as ours. I like its definition by a member of the Congress. He said:

“The new deal is an old deal—as old as the earliest aspirations of humanity for liberty and justice and the good life. It is as old as Christian ethics, for basically its ethics are the same. It is new as the Declaration of Independence was new, and the Constitution of the United States; its motives are the same. It voices the deathless cry of good men and good women for the opportunity to live and work in freedom, the right to be secure in their homes and in the fruits of their labor, the power to protect themselves against the ruthless and the cunning. It recognizes that man is indeed his brother’s keeper, insists that the laborer is worthy of his hire, demands that justice shall rule the mighty as well as the weak.

“It seeks to cement our society, rich and poor, manual worker and brain worker, into a voluntary brotherhood of freemen, standing together, striving together, for the common good of all.”

Keep that vision before your eyes and in your hearts; it can, it will be attained.