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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson


When Its Lost Can it be Found Again?

I’ve had a good deal of fun over the last few weeks teaching a college-level political science course at Boise State University.

The course is built around the politics and policy of the New Deal period in the 1930’s and we focus a good deal on the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt (and others) as well as the lasting impact of those challenging and dramatic days on life here in the American West.

For a young adult in college today the 1930’s might as well be the 1730’s. It is ancient history, but considering the economic and political challenges we face today, I continue to be struck by the parallels between the political and policy discussion that took place in the 1930’s and the on-going debate we’re having in the country right now.

To prepare for a recent class, I went back and read and then listened to the very first Fireside Chat Franklin Roosevelt delivered in March of 1933. FDR, inaugurated eight days earlier, had closed the nation’s banks and gotten Congress to pass emergency banking legislation to facilitate the orderly re-opening of the nation’s financial institutions. He talked to the nation by radio on Sunday evening, March 12. The historic speech was a model of clarity, description and, most importantly, confidence building. If you have never read or heard the speech, it is worth your time. The brief talk stands the test of time as an example of the power and importance of effective political rhetoric.

Roosevelt patiently explained during his talk how banks work, why some banks had failed and why some Americans had made a run on banks to convert their deposits to currency or gold. He then explained what he had done and why and that Congress had supported his bold efforts to stabilize the banking system. He then explained how banks would begin to re-open.

Here is one of the more memorable sections of the speech:

“I hope you can see, my friends, from this essential recital of what your Government is doing that there is nothing complex, nothing radical in the process.

“We have had a bad banking situation. Some of our bankers had shown themselves either incompetent or dishonest in their handling of the people’s funds. They had used money entrusted to them in speculations and unwise loans. This was, of course, not true of the vast majority of our banks, but it was true in enough of them to shock the people of the United States, for a time, into a sense of insecurity and to put them into a frame of mind where they did not differentiate, but seemed to assume that the acts of a comparative few had tainted them all. And so it became the Government’s job to straighten out this situation and do it as quickly as possible. And that job is being performed.”

I thought of Roosevelt’s simple, elegant words as I listened to Barack Obama speak to Congress this week. In a fundamentally important way, Obama has the same challenge FDR faced during that banking crisis in 1933. He needs to begin to restore confidence – in himself, the government and in the country’s ability to move ahead.

It’s not at all clear he made much headway.

Obama did use his speech to educate, the approach FDR mastered. At one point, for example, he said in speaking of the reality of cutting spending:

“So here’s the truth.  Around two-thirds of our budget is spent on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and national security.  Programs like unemployment insurance, student loans, veterans’ benefits, and tax credits for working families take up another 20%.  What’s left, after interest on the debt, is just 12 percent for everything else. That’s 12 percent for all of our other national priorities like education and clean energy; medical research and transportation; food safety and keeping our air and water clean.”

A good approach, I think, but maybe too late to be effective. I kept feeling that the President should have given this speech two years ago, or at the beginning of the mostly senseless recent debate over the debt ceiling. The words Obama spoke seem more directed at the Congress than at the American public and that comes as most Republicans, as the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank points out, no longer take Obama seriously. As for the public, the polls say they are losing or have lost confidence.

Credibility, confidence and competence are the Big Three of politics. Once the notion settles with voters that a politician lacks one or more of the Big Three, it’s pretty close to impossible for that person to get back in command. Just ask Jimmy Carter or Lyndon Johnson or George W. Bush during his last two years.

The brilliance of Franklin Roosevelt was contained in his ability to connect and explain and the abiding sense that he had confidence so the country could have confidence, too. He never lost the confidence of a sizable majority of the American people, so never had to try to regain it. Maybe that is the true measure of greatness in politics.

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