Obama to Follow in Lincoln, FDR's Footsteps?

Barack Obama may be taking cues from some well-regarded predecessors

With each passing day, it becomes clearer that, in some respects, President-elect Barack Obama is following in the footsteps of two former presidents he greatly admires, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Lincoln, after a hard fought, often-bitter campaign, chose for his cabinet some of the very men who had battled so hard to win the presidency themselves. Now, Obama is choosing for the prime position in his cabinet the woman who tried so hard to defeat him in the primaries, Sen. Hillary Clinton.

In the four months between the 1860 election and the day he was inaugurated as America's 16th president, March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was besieged by various friends and supporters to spell out in detail what he intended to do about the rebellious south. He kept his own counsel. He did not want to speak out in specifics on the divisive issue of slavery until after he officially took power. But he was quietly busy putting together a cabinet.

“Keep cool,” Lincoln publicly advised people. “If the great American people will only keep their temper, on both sides of the line, the troubles will come to an end.'' 

As Doris Kearns Goodwin relates in her book, “Team of Rivals,” in December 1860, Lincoln sent a letter through an emissary to New Yorker William Henry Seward, his major opponent at the Republican Convention of 1860. He offered to nominate Seward to be Secretary of State, the letter declaring, “in the hope that you will accept it, and with the belief that your position in the public eye, your integrity, ability, learning, and great experience, all combine to render it an appointment pre-eminently fit to be made.”  After a few days, Seward accepted, telling his wife he accepted the nomination, adding: “I will try to save freedom and my country.”  It was before the era of press secretaries and sound bites. Politicians consummated deals with elegant prose and not by an exchange of e-mails.

FDR, as the headline writers for the tabloids abbreviated his name in the 1930s, took office to face the greatest economic crisis in the nation's history. Obama faces a situation that may be as bad. It's fascinating that Obama's approach could turn out to be similar to FDR's.

I was nine years old when FDR took office. But I remember the gloomy days of the Depression well. My father was a dentist in the Bronx and some patients couldn't pay for dental work. Instead they brought him barter, exchanging items like paintings, jewelry and chickens for fillings and extractions. Those were harrowing times and FDR tried to reassure Americans from the first moments of his administration. 

In his inaugural address on March 4, 1933, FDR told the people at a time when banks were failing, unemployment was rising, farmers and workers were suffering, that this was a day of “national consecration.”

“This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper,” FDR promised. “So first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing was have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into adventure.”

If the challenge sounds familiar, it's understandable. What Roosevelt did in his first months in office, was to take action against a sea of troubles by instituting such things as a bank holiday to help that industry through its troubles. He created the NRA, the National Recovery Act, to help businesses through the hard times, and he created the WPA [Works Progress Administration} and the CCC  [Civilian Conservation Corps] to put people to work building government projects.

Not that Obama necessarily has such ideas in mind. But he is a student of history and has read about these predecessors with great interest. He has proposed a two-year economic stimulus plan to create 2.5 million jobs. He wants to cut taxes for lower- and middle-class workers. He wants to build roads and schools and create “green jobs” by offering business incentives.

Does he sound like FDR? In a radio address last weekend, he certainly radiated optimism. “It will be a two year, nationwide effort,” he said, “to jump start job creation in American and lay the foundation for a strong and growing economy. We'll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children and building wind farms and solar panels, fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil.”

So far, and it's still far too early in the game to tell exactly what the ultimate outcome will be, he seems eager to take on the challenges and confident he can meet them successfully. That sounds like FDR.

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