Shahien Nasiripour points out a gaping rhetorical contrast between President Obama's speech on Wall Street reform at Cooper Union, and a famous speech FDR in the closing days of his 1936 re-election campaign. Obama, ever the unifier, reached out to Wall Street, while FDR drew a sharp, harsh contrast:
With Goldman Sachs's top leaders in attendance, President Barack Obama urged financial executives to work with him in passing the financial reform bill currently pending in the Senate.
"Ultimately, there is no dividing line between Main Street and Wall Street. We rise or we fall together as one nation. So I urge you to join me -- to join those who are seeking to pass these commonsense reforms," according to Obama's prepared remarks for a speech in New York City. "And I urge you to do so not only because it is in the interests of your industry, but because it is in the interests of our country."
Obama's call for a more cooperative relationship stands in sharp contrast to another presidential address to financial executives in New York a few years removed from a financial crisis.
"We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace -- business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering," Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in a 1936 speech. "They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today.
"They are unanimous in their hate for me -- and I welcome their hatred."
The rhetorical difference between Obama and FDR could hardly be greater. However, there is something else that Obama said today that actually reminded me of a rhetorical move FDR often made. Like FDR, Obama emphasized that he believed in a free market.
White House talking points today:
The President is an ardent believer in the free market and a strong financial sector, and the reforms in this legislation are not about stifling competition or innovation. By laying out clear rules of the road and empowering our consumers with clear and concise information when making financial decisions, we'll offer more choices for consumers, more opportunities for businesses, and more stability in our financial system.
FDR writing to a friend in 1937:
In spite of defects as exhibited, I am still a believer in the capitalistic system... I do not see, however, why intelligent men in the world cannot do something toward remedying the effects of the capitalistic form of government.
From Obama's speech today
As I said two years ago on this stage, I believe in the power of the free market. I believe in a strong financial sector that helps people to raise capital and get loans and invest their savings. But a free market was never meant to be a free license to take whatever you can get, however you can get it.
Famous FDR speech, 1938:
"You undergraduates who see me for the first time have read your newspapers and heard on the air that I am, at the very least, an ogre - a consorter with communists, a destroyer of the rich... that I was driving the nation into bankruptcy, and that I breakfasted every morning on a dish of 'grilled millionaire.'
"Actually I am an exceedingly mild mannered person-a practitioner of peace, both domestic and foreign, a believer in the capitalistic system, and for my breakfast a devotee of scrambled eggs.
On these rhetorical points--emphasizing that they believe in capitalism, but feel its worst aspects must be reined in--FDR and Obama are nearly identical.
As the title implies, my point in this article is not actually to equate Obama and Roosevelt, but to call into question mythologies that have built up around progressive figures of the past (and Roosevelt actually refused to call himself a "progressive," opting for what at the time was the more right-wing "liberal"). It is true that Obama is far from the ideal of a progressive crusader, but the image as FDR achieving that ideal comes from viewing his presidency selectively and in distant hindsight. FDR was in fact so far from that ideal at the time that he faced the very real prospect of being defeated for renomination--not re-election, renomination--in 1936 from a left-wing challenger.
Progressive mythology is an odd sort of thing, since we are supposed to be finding our ideals in a future that has not yet been achieved, not in a past that can never be regained and never actually happened (see conservatives on Ronald Reagan, life before the 1960's, and other matters). We should pretty much always find our leaders to be unsatisfactory, but not because they failed to live up to a progressive figure of the past.