It was March 4, 1933, a frightening moment in American history. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was taking office as President of the United States. Banks were teetering on the brink of failure. Unemployment was soaring. Industry was crumbling. There were bread lines -- and men were selling apples on street corners to eke out a few pennies.
The song of the day was: “Brother, can you spare a dime?” In his inaugural address, FDR asked his fellow citizens not to abandon hope but to look to the future with courage.
He declared: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself --nameless, unreasoning unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.' “
There is a striking similarity between the situation President-elect Obama faces and the crisis FDR confronted. And there are strong similarities between the personalities of these two leaders elected 75 years apart. Like Roosevelt, Obama is charismatic. He has a beguiling smile. His voice seduces listeners, just as Roosevelt's did.
Obama calls for hope and courage too. In his speech on election night, he evoked a picture of the way it was when FDR took office: “When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land.” And, as Obama recounted the history, we “saw a nation conquer fear itself and a New Deal, new jobs, a new sense of common purpose. Yes, we can.' “
Clearly, FDR, the 32nd president, is a role model for the 44th. In his first 100 days in office, FDR introduced 15 major pieces of legislation. He created dozens of federal programs called “the alphabet agencies.” There was the NRA, the WPA, the CCC, the PWA -- all part of what he called the New Deal. .
Is Obama, the man who ran with a promise of change, intending to introduce a series of major changes in his first 100 days? He is assembling a brain trust and a cabinet, just as FDR did. And he seems eager to start carrying out his mandate as soon as he takes the oath of office on January 20.
I remember FDR's NRA. As a child walking down the block in the Bronx, I saw in every store window a placard. Imprinted on each was a huge blue eagle and, under the eagle, were the words:
“We do our part.”
There was something reassuring about those signs in the windows, attesting to the fact that each business owner was abiding by the codes and quotas set by the National Recovery Administration'' to promote investor confidence and consumer morale. It worked for two years until the Supreme Court, to Roosevelt's chagrin, struck down the NRA as unconstitutional.
But, in 1933, NRA stood, not for the National Rifle Association but for a new manifestation of the biblical injunction that we should be our brother's keeper.
The government was asking us all to do our part in making a broken country whole again. And it did help for a while.
FDR was able to use effectively what was then a new medium, radio. In what he called his “fireside chats,” he tried to soothe the fears of Americans and promise them a better future.
I remember when he spoke to the citizens of America on summer evenings, it seemed that every window in the Bronx tenements was open and you could hear Roosevelt's voice coming from every radio into the street.
In his first fireside chat on March 12, 1933, he spoke of the measures, including a bank holiday, that had been taken to safeguard deposits.
“You people,” he told his audience, “must have faith, you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system. It is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”
I can imagine Obama in a similar way, reaching out to the people of America and trying to reassure them and gain their support.