Obama’s Own ‘Rendezvous With Destiny’

By
Thursday, November 27, 2008 at 6:00 am
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the TVA Act in 1933. (tva.gov)

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Tennessee Valley Authority Act in 1933. (tva.gov)

President-elect Barack Obama is confronting a cascading economic crisis, which seems to worsen by the day, not the week. As venerable banking houses collapse, once-mighty industries teeter on the brink of oblivion and unemployment mounts, the air thickens with recollections of the Great Depression of the 1930s, and comparisons between Obama and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But let’s define our terms. So what exactly was the Great Depression, and what did FDR do about it?

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The short answer is: The Great Depression was a rare political opportunity, and Roosevelt made the most of it — to the nation’s lasting benefit.

A longer answer would acknowledge that the Great Depression was a catastrophic economic crisis that Roosevelt failed to resolve – at least not until World War II came along, some eight years after he took office.

A still longer answer would recognize the connection between FDR’s short-term economic policy failure and the New Deal’s long-term political success. Much misunderstanding surrounds this matter.

“At the heart of the New Deal,” the distinguished historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote, “there was not a philosophy but a temperament.” In a kind of caricature of Hofstadter’s view, a New York Times writer not long ago said that Roosevelt “threw a slew of policies at the wall, and whatever stuck became the New Deal.”

That accepted view of the New Deal — as a kind of harum-scarum frenzy of random, incoherent policies that failed to slay the Depression demon — has become deeply embedded in our national folklore. But it is woefully and mischievously mistaken.

The fact is that Roosevelt purposely forged in the crucible of the nation’s most harrowing economic crisis a set of reforms that cohered in a more systematic pattern than is dreamt of in most philosophies. The essential logic of that pattern fairly leaps from the pages of the historical record. It can be described in a single word: security.

A Great Depression bread line, as depicted at the FDR Memorial in Washington, DC (Flickr: Tony the Misfit)

A Great Depression bread line, as depicted at the FDR Memorial in Washington, DC (Flickr: Tony the Misfit)

It is altogether fitting and proper that the New Deal’s most durable and consequential reform bears that very word in its title: the Social Security Act of 1935. A even greater measure of security was the New Deal’s gift to millions of Americans — farmers and workers, immigrants and blue-bloods, children and the elderly, as well as countless industrialists, bankers, and merchants, not to mention enormous tracts of forest, prairie, and mountain.

Forget about the colorful creations of the decidedly frenzied and much ballyhooed Hundred Days — like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Industrial Recovery Act. Most of them were attended by much sound and fury, but signified little, and strutted the briefest of hours on history’s stage.

But all the New Deal reforms that endured – the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Housing Administration, the National Labor Relations Board, the Fair Labor Standards Act and, above all, the Social Security Act — had a common cardinal purpose. Roosevelt’s goal was not simply to end the immediate crisis of the Great Depression, but to make life less risky, to temper for generations thereafter what FDR repeatedly called the “hazards and vicissitudes” of life.

The New Deal provided more assurance to bank depositors (FDIC), more reliable information to investors (SEC), more safety to lenders (FHA), more stability to relations between capital and labor (NLRB), more predictable wages to the most vulnerable workers (FLSA), and a safety net for both the unemployed and the elderly (Social Security).

Those innovations re-wove the very fabric of national life. They profoundly shaped the fates of Americans born long after the crisis of the Great Depression had passed. With the exception of the FDIC, none dates from 1933.

Had economic health been miraculously restored in the fabled Hundred Days, a swift return to business as usual might have meant politics as usual as well — and none of those landmark reforms would have come to pass. Indeed, there would have been no New Deal as we know it.

Roosevelt understood this. He was a deeply strategic political actor and an astute student of history. He keenly appreciated what the engines of history had wrought and what they might be made to yield in the uniquely enabling circumstance of the Depression.

FDR had sketched the broad outline of his grand design well before the Great Depression descended. Proposals for old-age pensions, for example, dated back to the platform of the Progressive Party in 1912, which nominated for president his beloved cousin and political role model, Theodore Roosevelt. FDR publicly endorsed the idea as early as 1930.

But FDR also told his fellow Democrats throughout the 1920s that his comprehensive reform agenda must wait “until the Republicans had led us into a serious period of depression and unemployment.” He eventually confronted a more dangerous depression than he could have anticipated — but he realized the opportunity that it afforded.

The Chinese character for “crisis,” we are told, is a melding of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.” FDR did not read Chinese, but he appreciated the logic of that etymology.

In his extraordinary second Inaugural Address, delivered Jan. 20, 1937, Roosevelt crowed about the actually quite modest recovery since 1933. “Our progress out of the depression is obvious,” he said. Then he added something altogether novel in the annals of presidential addresses: “Such symptoms of prosperity may become portents of disaster!” Roosevelt went on to describe the “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” whose plight made a mockery of the American dream.

The context made it clear that he was not then speaking about the victims of the transient depression crisis, which he saw as ending, but about the accumulated social and human deficits spawned by more than a century of let-‘er-rip, swashbuckling, unregulated American capitalism — deficits not yet fully redeemed.

Solving that problem was what he meant when he said that “this generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”

“We are going to make a country,” Roosevelt once remarked, “in which no one is left out.”

In that unadorned sentence, Roosevelt summed up his highest purposes and his lasting accomplishments. The New Deal’s legacy was to give countless Americans, who until then had never had much of it, a strong sense of security. And with it, Roosevelt gave them a deeper sense of having a stake in their country and a bond with their countrymen.

Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, seems to have taken this essential history lesson on board. “You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste,” he said recently. “It’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid.”

Like Roosevelt, Obama faces an urgent economic crisis. Like Roosevelt, Obama must use the (now considerably greater) powers of government to restore economic health. But like Roosevelt, Obama will ultimately be judged not simply on whether or how he ended this crisis, but on how he used it.

We have our own accumulated social and human deficits. Some, like the lack of universal health care, have been begging for attention since Roosevelt’s time. Others, including a crumbling infrastructure, struggling public schools, climate change, energy dependence, environmental degradation, widening income disparity and illegal immigration, have been festering merely for the last several decades.

If this generation is to have its own rendezvous with destiny, and if Obama wants to stand in FDR’s company, those matters can no longer be avoided.

David M. Kennedy is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University. He won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for History for “Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.”

Comments

23 Comments

Native American
Comment posted November 27, 2008 @ 7:01 am

Just think what 50% of the undocumented will do when Immigration Reform is done, 10 Million Homes, Cars, Appliances, Bank Accounts, Taxes, This will add TRILLIONS$ into the economy. Democrats & Republicans should use this Momentum to pass Immigration Reform, It will Free us lots of Local Police to concentrate on the real criminals and this will only benefit everyone .

“An analysis by America's Voice of 21 “battleground” races for House and Senate seats found that pro-immigration-reform candidates beat enforcement-only “hardliners” in 19 of the races. “Americans voters have shown they prefer fair and practical solutions over anti-immigrant rhetoric that sidesteps the real problem,” said Angela Kelley, Director of the Immigration Policy Center”


jacksmith
Comment posted November 27, 2008 @ 7:31 pm

WE HAVE MORE TO DO:

Democrat Jim Martin is in a runoff against Bush Republican Saxby Chambliss for the Senate seat from Georgia. Bush's Saxby Chambliss voted against spending a few measly dollars to provide health care coverage for Georgia, and Americas needy children. But he supported wasting hundreds of billions of your dollars, and the life BLOOD of Americas finest on an unnecessary war in Iraq.

At a time when 47 million of you have no health insurance coverage, and over 100 million of you with insurance are just one major illness away from complete financial destruction. Bush and Saxby Chambliss voted to make the heart break of bankruptcy relief even harder for all of you to use.

You see, Bush and Saxby Chambliss, and his family don't have to worry about their health care coverage. They have the finest health care coverage your tax money can buy for them. Courtesy of you. The American Tax payer. In fact, no one but the super rich can afford the health care coverage you the tax payer provide for Saxby Chambliss, and his family for FREE! with your tax dollars.

He supposedly works for you. But he doesn't think you and your family should have access to the type of taxpayer supported FREE health care that you provide for him, and his loved ones for FREE!. Doesn't that just make you BURRING MAD!

Vote for JIM MARTIN for US senator from Georgia. Vote for JIM Martin who will be on your side. Vote for JIM MARTIN who will work with President Obama and a majority congress for you. Vote for JIM MARTIN most of all for your-self, your family's, friends, and loved ones. Vote for JIM MARTIN for a better America, and a better World.

Don't let Saxby Chambliss make a chump out of you by tricking you into voting against your own best interest. Saxby chambliss is NOT! on your side. He's not one of you. He is on George Bush's side. And we all know what a catastrophe the Bush Chambliss administration has been the past 8 years.

Contact all your family and friends and do every thing you can to see to it that JIM MARTIN and GEORGIANS! take that senate seat back for Georgia, and America. No matter where you live in America. This is important to you. President Obama will need all the help, and power you can give him to try and fix this catastrophic mess that the Corrupt Bush Chambliss administration has created.

As I said before you will have to vote in overwhelming numbers to overcome the Bush Chambliss “Let Them Eat Cake” vote fraud machine. Vote early if you can. Then help everyone you can get to the polls and vote for JIM MARTIN. You and your loved ones don't have to be Saxby Chambliss's victims anymore.

I know you will get it done. Just like you did for President Obama.

God bless all of you

jacksmith – WORKING CLASS… :-)


Jordan T Becker
Comment posted November 30, 2008 @ 9:54 am

If everyone thinks their tax dollars should be spent on universal healthcare, struggling public schools, and narrowing the income gap why don't they get out there in rural counties and inner city slums and start handing out their paychecks. If you care so much about the greater collectives well-being then why do you require the federal government as a middle man, an infinitely bumbling and inefficient middle man.

Take action by helping people on your own. Be responsible for yourself. Or would you rather trust a political machine that is corrupt no matter who is president.

If you feel so bad for poor people, invite a homeless man in for a warm meal or volunteer at an inner city public grade school. Or are you too important and prefer being forced by the government to give money to people who, in many cases, have few aspirations, motivation, or desire to try to find a job. You are the person best fit to decide how your money should be spent, not a panel of chairpersons who more than likely benefit secondarily by your earmarks from legislation regarding general welfare of the American public.


jc
Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

You are a real @$$ aren't you.
We got where we are now because of people like you who do not give a damn about anyone but yourself. I say, stay in your hole and you will be just fine. For the rest of us, we will be apart of something greater then ourselves and be better people for it.


ben
Comment posted December 3, 2008 @ 12:26 pm

As a nursing home administrator working in surburban Chicago I always find it fascinating how anti-tax, small government Republicans are the first people to place their mothers and fathers on Medicaid as they expect Medicare to pay for every penny of their parent's medical costs and attempt to keep their parent's social security check for themselves!

It's funny how goverment programs are not a wasteful “hand-outs” or examples of government “run-amok” when we, or someone we love, receive benefits.

Best wishes to Team Obama in their efforts to rebuild this nation after years of purposeful neglect at the hands of the Republican party.


Steven Earl Salmony
Comment posted December 6, 2008 @ 6:23 am

Dear Friends,

The global, human-induced predicament visible in our time to the family of humanity makes one thing clear: people with eyes to see, ears to hear and no speech impediments have got to speak out loudly, clearly and often now. Silence, the greatest power the rich and powerful possess, cannot be allowed to prevail. The reckless way a few people with wealth and power maintain a “golden” silence, one that protects their greed, gluttony and hoarding, is dangerous and cannot longer be endured because a good enough future for our children and coming generations is being mortgaged and threatened by these leading elders in my not-so-great generation.

Regardless of whether or not other human beings choose to accept the “answers” to one question, I believe we must ask ourselves, “Can we teach one another to live within limits?”

It is necessary, I suppose, for human beings to recognize and affirm human limits

http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender….

and Earth's limitations

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0CYP/is_…

To do otherwise and, by so doing, choose willfully and foolishly to ignore the practical requirements of biophysical reality runs the risk of putting life as we know it and our planetary home as a fit place for human habitation in peril, even in these early years of Century XXI.

Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
established 2001
http://sustainabilityscience.org/content.html?c…


Steven Earl Salmony
Comment posted December 6, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

Dear Friends,

The global, human-induced predicament visible in our time to the family of humanity makes one thing clear: people with eyes to see, ears to hear and no speech impediments have got to speak out loudly, clearly and often now. Silence, the greatest power the rich and powerful possess, cannot be allowed to prevail. The reckless way a few people with wealth and power maintain a “golden” silence, one that protects their greed, gluttony and hoarding, is dangerous and cannot longer be endured because a good enough future for our children and coming generations is being mortgaged and threatened by these leading elders in my not-so-great generation.

Regardless of whether or not other human beings choose to accept the “answers” to one question, I believe we must ask ourselves, “Can we teach one another to live within limits?”

It is necessary, I suppose, for human beings to recognize and affirm human limits

http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender….

and Earth's limitations

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0CYP/is_…

To do otherwise and, by so doing, choose willfully and foolishly to ignore the practical requirements of biophysical reality runs the risk of putting life as we know it and our planetary home as a fit place for human habitation in peril, even in these early years of Century XXI.

Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
established 2001
http://sustainabilityscience.org/content.html?c…


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Regardless of whether or not other human beings choose to accept the “answers” to one question, I believe we must ask ourselves, “Can we teach one another to live within limits?”


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Regardless of whether or not other human beings choose to accept the “answers” to one question, I believe we must ask ourselves, “Can we teach one another to live within limits?”


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A still longer answer would recognize the connection between FDR’s short-term economic policy failure and the New Deal’s long-term political success. Much misunderstanding surrounds this matter.


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Comment posted November 29, 2010 @ 3:54 am

The Great Depression was a rare political opportunity, and Roosevelt made the most of it — to the nation’s lasting benefit.
GOOD POINT!!!!!!!!!!


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Comment posted November 29, 2010 @ 3:54 am

The Great Depression was a rare political opportunity, and Roosevelt made the most of it — to the nation’s lasting benefit.
GOOD POINT!!!!!!!!!!


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Comment posted November 29, 2010 @ 3:54 am

The Great Depression was a rare political opportunity, and Roosevelt made the most of it — to the nation’s lasting benefit.
GOOD POINT!!!!!!!!!!


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Comment posted November 29, 2010 @ 3:54 am

The Great Depression was a rare political opportunity, and Roosevelt made the most of it — to the nation’s lasting benefit.
GOOD POINT!!!!!!!!!!


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