Dispatch November 2008

The Hope for Audacity

Todd Gitlin assesses the difference between Obama's outlook and that of FDR and LBJ, and considers what it will take for him to succeed in office.

With the country thrashing around and an incoming president as yet largely untested, hopes hearken backwards, converging on memories—and fantasies—of a time in the previous century when, in the wake of a catastrophic and self-destroying presidency, history met legend under the sign of a vague but promising phrase (what exactly was a “New Deal” anyway?), and Franklin Delano Roosevelt rushed to pull rabbits out of a hat, and the spirit of confidence—the refusal of fear—was part of the rebuttal to fear.  No sooner was Obama elected than Time magazine’s cover offered a Photoshopped Barack Obama in fedora and rimless glasses, grinning big, cigarette holder in place, hand on convertible steering wheel, with the tag-line:  “The New New Deal.” No surprise, Obama’s run-up to “Change” sends many a political analyst to accounts of  FDR’S first Hundred Days in office, when Americans first clamped capital letters onto the phrase. Obama himself sounded more than a little like FDR when he told Steve Croft on “60 Minutes”:  “My interest is in finding something that works.”

On the surface, at least, the resemblance is plain in both temperament and style.  Heaps of histories and biographies make clear that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an improvisation artist, and the conventionality of the observation does not erase its accuracy.  Roosevelt declared forthrightly that a practical tinkerer was exactly what he would be—a man of action, pursuing (as he put it in a 1932 campaign speech) “bold, persistent experimentation.”  There was nothing highfalutin about his method.  He thought it was “common sense to take a method and try it:  If it fails, admit it frankly and try another.  But above all, try something.”  In this, he offered himself as the direct opposite of Hoover’s Republicans, whom he might well have characterized as the Party of Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There. 

New York Times editorial board member Adam Cohen, who in a new book, Nothing to Fear, views the New Deal through the prism of five of its central advisers, emphasizes FDR’s can-do improvisational style, but also notes that FDR’s experimentation was not random.  He began with two laws favored by business:  the Banking Act and the budget-cutting Economy Act. Having consolidated political support from the more conservative elements in his coalition, he proceeded to damn their torpedoes.  Quickly he was persuaded that he needed to undo his commitment to balancing the budget and cutting government spending by 25 percent—commitments enshrined in the 1932 Democratic platform, which he had taken seriously. (“I regard reduction in federal spending as one of the most important issues of this campaign.”)  Cohen writes: “Perhaps the most important transformation of the Hundred Days was Roosevelt’s decision to engage in large-scale deficit spending to fund federal relief efforts.”

Roosevelt took his mandate from his overwhelming victory, but he also availed himself of a social movement:  labor unions and their supporters.  He proceeded to back legislation that encouraged unions to organize—and organize they did, nearly doubling their membership between 1933 and 1937, then redoubling it by 1943.  Mine worker chief John L. Lewis barnstormed through the coal fields wielding the slogan, “The president wants you to join a union.” 

Obama, by contrast, leads a movement that is strangely his own— organized around him, his mystique, his aura, his promise.  In a political landscape where passions outweigh ideological clarity, this is more a strength than a weakness.  It’s Obama the charismatic amalgam himself who stands for Change, or, if you like, Transformation.  This is no small thing—it is potentially the biggest difference between his own political outlook and both FDR’s and LBJ’s—even if  his cult of personality strikes some observers as, in the words of Newsweek editor Evan Thomas, “slightly creepy.” From the time when his people deployed around Iowa and readied themselves for the caucuses, the rapture of his huge crowds, their videos and songs, their Webbed-up engagement, their readiness to donate and volunteer, harmonized with the networked style of his campaign.  It all added up to an odd sort of movement, but a movement nevertheless.

A national campaign is very different from a neighborhood project but, partly because community organizing was for Obama an intensely absorbing activity, and because he is a close student, a sort of ambulatory ethnographer, of the worlds he has moved through, he seems to have learned lessons from the latter that he and his team applied to the former.  On November 5, the best post mortem line to appear on the Web was this, on a tennis blog:  “Do you think Sarah Palin understands what a community organizer does now?“ 

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Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author of Letters to a Young Activist and The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.

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