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The Nation

Obama Should Borrow A Page From FDR This Labor Day

John Nichols

President Obama will speak in Milwaukee this Labor Day, his second Wisconsin appearance in as many months.

The president's attentiveness to the state is notable, if perhaps somewhat less than altruistic.

This is, after all, an election year. And Wisconsin is the
swingingest of swing states -- a state where a governorship that has
been in Democratic hands could be lost, and where a Senate seat and at
least one U.S. House seat are vulnerable.

So, this Labor Day, Obama wants to reconnect with voters in a state
that gave him overwhelming support in his 2008 campaigns for the
Democratic presidential nomination and the presidency.

Unfortunately, polls suggest that Wisconsinites -- like residents of
other Midwestern swing states -- are not quite so impressed with Obama
as they were two years ago. It is not that the people of the state have
given up on the guy. But they are looking for something more than
managerial pronouncements about the economic shambles that he inherited
from George Bush and Dick Cheney.

Midwesterners are not naive and nostalgic.
They know that Bush and Cheney did not "get it."

What they're not so sure about is whether Obama "gets" it.

To answer the question, the president would do well to borrow a page from the wisest of his predecessors.

Seventy-six years ago this summer, Franklin Roosevelt came to
another Wisconsin city, Green Bay, at a similar point in his presidency.

Like Obama, FDR had been elected on a promise of "hope" and "change."

Like Obama, FDR had tried with mixed success to deliver on that promise.

In Green Bay, in the summer of 1934, the 32nd president needed to
explain to a crowd that was sympathetic but worried that the economic
wrangling in which he and his administration was engaged had to be seen
in perspective - not just the perspective of the presidency of the man
he replaced, Herbert Hoover, but the perspective of the long American
struggle between a privileged few that engaged in the "private means of
exploitation" and the great many that had "waged a long and bitter fight
for (their) rights."

Roosevelt did this with a history lesson, of a sort, in which he
traced back to the founding of the republic in to recount the long fight
"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."


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That fight between patriotic proponents of economic justice and the
Tory defenders of an old economic royalism had, Roosevelt argued, come
to a head with the arrival of the Great Depression.

Recalling the 1932 election that swept Democrats to power and ushered
in the New Deal era, the president argued, "In the great national
movement that culminated over a year ago, 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

"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,"
Roosevelt continued. "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."

The primary barrier to action, the president explained, was erected
by those who still entertained the fantasy who argued that FDR could
restore confidence only by "(telling) 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."

So, like Obama, Roosevelt faced an opposition that claimed government was the problem.

Unlike Obama, however, Roosevelt refused to even entertain - let
alone embrace - the absurd constructs of the private-sector fabulists
who "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

"In fact," the president continued, "if we were to listen to (the
anti-government crowd), 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," thundered Roosevelt. "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."

With those words, Roosevelt took a side.

He did not imagine that it was possible to compromise with those who wanted to return to the "tooth and claw" past.

No, he would stand against the Tories and for the new order where it
was understood that the purpose of government was to achieve "the
improved conditions of the whole population and not a small fraction

Were Obama to take a similar stand this Labor Day, were he to echo
Roosevelt's call for economic justice, the energy of this election year
would shift - in Wisconsin and nationally - because voters would know,
finally, which side their president was on.

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