President Obama’s second inaugural address has a special resonance in New York. Many ideas advanced by the president for his second term agenda reminded me of the liberal
Democrats who dominated their party and the nation in the mid-Twentieth Century.
They seemed to be thinking along the same lines as the man from Illinois who would ascend to the Presidency half a century later.
I’m thinking of my own early years and the figures who dominated New York politics back then.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, of course, stands out. He won overwhelming majorities in four
elections -- with a sizable boost coming from New York, the president ‘s native state.
It was FDR who promised jobs for the jobless and what he called a “New Deal” for the middle class. If you walked along a Bronx street at night during one of FDR’s “fireside chats,” it seemed as though the president’s voice was booming from every radio. He was the president who discovered the power of radio and used it to sell his program.
FDR helped create such liberal Democratic icons as Senator Robert F. Wagner, who put through
major legislation benefiting organized labor. Herbert Lehman, the first Jewish governor of New
York, was a valuable ally in putting through Roosevelt’s liberal program.
Alex Rose and Davis Dubinsky, the labor leaders who founded the Liberal Party, were instrumental in the electoral victories of FDR and others.
In his second inaugural address Monday, Barack Obama laid out an agenda that fosters gay rights,
reform of immigration policies, stopping climate change and preserving a social welfare safety net.
In his second inaugural address in 1937, FDR had similar concerns. He spoke of “millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.” And he expressed deep sympathy for farm families and those struggling to get their children a better education.
In words that rang down through the history of those times. FDR declared: “I see one-third of a
nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”
“On third of a nation” became a rallying cry for liberals and even the title of a play. It was a
phrase that liberal Democrats used to mobilize their adherents.
You get the feeling that, if President Obama didn’t read FDR’s second inaugural address, he was
still acting in a similar spirit. His words make it clear: “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same time to succeed as anybody else.”
Historian Evan Cornog pointed out that Obama’s health reform legislation was the last piece of
unfinished business from the New Deal. It took that long to get it enacted.
And he told me that there is a growing lack of confidence that we can afford much social legislation. “ Even in Europe,” Cornog said, “the bill is coming due. With pensions a rising expense there is concern about how much government can afford to pay for social programs.”
When Obama lays out the specifics of his plans in the state of the union address Feb. 12th,
we’ll have a better idea of how the president hopes to assign priorities to his agenda. Clearly historian Cornog is skeptical about the money being available to accomplish all the items on the President’s agenda.
Obama has an ambitious program -- but practical and political considerations may well interfere
with its full realization.