President Obama’s Thanksgiving proclamation for 2011 reprises the boilerplate language employed in his previous seasonal statements. His messages have been a bit more historically and anthropologically detailed than those of his immediate predecessors — for instance, this year’s proclamation makes reference to how the feast of 1621 “honored the Wampanoag for generously extending their knowledge of local game and agriculture to the Pilgrims, and today we renew our gratitude to all American Indians and Alaska natives.”
Obama’s 2011 proclamation is even more religious in tone than Obama’s earlier ones — abandoning his previous bows to universalism in favor of more references to God and grace.
With each passing year, Obama’s proclamations become more generic. They are no more poetic, no more adventurous, than those issued by George W. Bush.
For Americans who think that Obama ought to use the bully pulpit more ably than his immediate predecessor, and than those Republicans who are campaigning so ardently to replace him, this is disappointing.
Obama ought not be carrying on where Bush left off. Nor should he fret about offending the delicate sensitivities of Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann.
Rather, he should be renewing the tradition of his boldest predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Unlike most presidents, Roosevelt recognized the annual production of the Thanksgiving proclamation as much more than a perfunctory task. Each of the 32nd president’s dozen proclamations was unique, and as his tenure progressed, Roosevelt used them to express the values of the New Deal and the internationalist struggle against fascism.
Roosevelt broke what for his time was new ground with his statements, using them to teach about religious diversity and to decry racial and ethnic divisions. As an example, Roosevelt’s proclamation for Thanksgiving Day 1941 appealed for “the establishment on earth of freedom, brotherhood, and justice…”
But the 32nd president’s most persistent theme in his Thanksgiving proclamations was the need to develop a new economic order.
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Roosevelt’s first Thanksgiving proclamation, penned in the depths of the Great Depression, declared:
“May we ask guidance in more surely learning the ancient truth that greed and selfishness and striving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness or good to the individual or to his neighbors.
“May we be grateful for the passing of dark days; for the new spirit of dependence one on another; for the closer unity of all parts of our wide land; for the greater friendship between employers and those who toil; for a clearer knowledge by all nations that we seek no conquests and ask only honorable engagements by all peoples to respect the lands and rights of their neighbors; for the brighter day to which we can win through by seeking the help of God in a more unselfish striving for the common bettering of mankind.”
Here was a president seeking not to deny economic turbulence but to offer a vision for responding to that turbulence as united citizenry rather than as isolated individuals.
This message was a constant for Roosevelt as he implemented the New Deal.
“During the past year we have been given courage and fortitude to meet the problems which have confronted us in our national life. Our sense of social justice has deepened. We have been given vision to make new provisions for human welfare and happiness, and in a spirit of mutual helpfulness we have cooperated to translate vision into reality,” he wrote in his 1934 proclamation. “More greatly have we turned our hearts and minds to things spiritual. We can truly say, ‘What profiteth it a nation if it gain the whole world and lose its own soul.’ With gratitude in our hearts for what has already been achieved, may we, with the help of God, dedicate ourselves anew to work for the betterment of mankind.”
A year later, concerned by the rise of European fascism, Roosevelt was at his most poetic, writing:
“In traversing a period of national stress our country has been knit together in a closer fellowship of mutual interest and common purpose. We can well be grateful that more and more of our people understand and seek the greater good of the greater number. We can be grateful that selfish purpose of personal gain, at our neighbor’s loss, less strongly asserts itself. We can be grateful that peace at home is strengthened by our growing willingness to common counsel. We can be grateful that our peace with other nations continues through recognition of our peaceful purpose.
“But in our appreciation of the blessings that Divine Providence has bestowed upon us in America, we shall not rejoice as the pharisee rejoiced. War and strife still live in the world. Rather must America by example and in practice help to bind the wounds of others, strive against disorder and aggression, encourage the lessening of distrust among peoples and advance peaceful trade and friendship.
The future of many generations of mankind will be greatly guided by our acts in these present years. We hew a new trail.”
America needs, now more than ever, to hew a new trail. If the protests of Wisconsin, Ohio and Occupy Wall Street have taught us anything, it is that the great mass of Americans, the 99 percent, are crying out for new direction and a new commitment to economic justice.
Having a president recognize and encourage the hewing of that new trail, as FDR did, would be controversial. And Obama still prefers to avoid controversy.
But the avoidance of controversy has not gotten our current president, or our country, very far.
Obama’s soft Thanksgiving proclamation serves the purpose of marking the holiday.
But it relinquishes the bully pulpit and the opportunity to teach and to lead a country that would be well-served by a new New Deal — and a new FDR.