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What Obama Can Learn From FDR

by ALLAN J. LICHTMAN

In planning his transition to the presidency, Barack Obama could do no better than follow the precedents for governing set by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Congressional Democrats should heed the FDR model as well. Roosevelt not only won an unprecedented four presidential elections, but he also transformed the Democrats from a weak minority to American’s dominant party. From 1933 to 1981, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress for 44 of 48 years.

Roosevelt succeeded as a policy maker and politician by following four simple rules that ought to guide the Obama administration as well.

Strike Early.

Newly elected presidents are strongest in the early days of their administration before buyer’s remorse sets in for the public and opposition in Congress has a chance to organize and gain strength.

FDR steered Congress 15 major bills through Congress in his first hundred days. Obama will not match that record – no president has done so. However, he should use his transition time to develop a roster of proposed legislation for his first hundred days. If possible, he should clear his bills with the Democratic congressional leadership and committee chairs during the transition period.

Roosevelt also used his executive powers during the first hundred days. For example, FDR issued executive orders that took the nation off the gold standard and declared a national bank holiday that closed insolvent institutions for four days.

Likewise Obama could reverse Bush-era executive orders that restricted access to presidential records, subjected anti-war dissidents to possible confiscation of their property, limited stem cell research, and weakened anti-pollution laws. He could also announce plans to close closing of Guantanamo Bay, honor the Geneva Conventions, and reject of the Bush doctrine on pre-emptive war.

Bring the People With You.

Congress is like Wall Street. It operates on fear and greed. Members of Congress will be fearful of challenging a president who has public backing and greedy to enact popular laws that they can bring to their constituents in the midterm elections of 2010.

FDR pioneered the direct communication between a president and the public through his fireside chats on the radio. He also worked through the conventional media by holding twice weekly press conferences.

Obama should use his oratorical skills and mastery of new media to sell his program directly to the American people. But he should also follow the other FDR precedent and make himself far more accessible to the press than President George W. Bush.

Think Big and Broadly.

The watchword for FDR’s policy-making was “bold, persistent experimentation.” FDR had no fear of implementing big ideas that ensuring bank deposits, regulating the stock market, guaranteeing collective bargaining rights, or providing old age insurance and minimum wages. He was also willing to explore different approaches to recovery from the depression and reform of the economic system. FDR kept what worked such as banking regulations and Social Security and discarded what did not, such as attempts to form industry-wide codes on wages and production under the National Recovery Act.

Today economists are offering solution to our economic woes that range from nationalizing the banks to letting the markets work their magic free of government interference. Obama should recognize that there is no consensus answer to recovery and reform and experiment with a mix of market and regulatory approaches.

Don’t Govern from the Middle.

Great presidents don’t move to the middle they move the middle to them by changing the conversation about government and implementing major new programs. That is what FDR did for liberal governance in the 1930s and Ronald Reagan for conservative governance in the 1980s.

No political leader in the history of the government has gained major political success or produced fundamental changes in national policy by attempting to move to the middle. Rather the so-called “center” of American politics is the graveyard of mediocre one-term presidents like William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, George H. W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter. The centrist presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton won two terms in office, but they both lost control of Congress in their first term and failed to pass on the presidency to a candidate of their party.

By following the example of FDR Obama can prove that it is possible to learn from history and not be merely condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past.

ALLAN J. LICHTMAN, a professor of history at American University, is the author of White Protestant Nation.

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