To Celebrate FDR’s Birthday, Obama Could Channel His Inner Roosevelt

Isaiah J. Poole

President Obama today traveled to a General Electric engine manufacturing plant in Waukesha County, Wis., to promote his job training initiatives.

One goal, of course, is to call attention to what the Obama administration is doing on what the public believes should be our number one issue: putting Americans back to work. But today — the birthday of Franklin Delano Roosevelt — would have been an appropriate day to make a broader, more audacious statement about what every American should expect from our economy, and thus what our government should do to uphold those basic expectations.

Today is a fitting day to recall how Roosevelt responded to an economy that had not worked for working people, and to ask how we can build on the legacy he left for us.

Part of that legacy is what is known as his 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, a simple set of principles Roosevelt called “essential” for all people around the globe: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

In that speech, Roosevelt also lists “jobs for those who can work” as one of the “basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems.” As the economy was then coming out of the decade of the Great Depression and the storm clouds of World War II were gathering, Roosevelt called for “a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it.”

That was a core plank of Roosevelt’s vision of an “economic bill of rights,” which he spelled out in a speech in 1944. That was the speech in which Roosevelt declared that every American should have “the right to a useful and remunerative job” and “the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.”

Harvey Kaye, professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, wrote in the National Memo earlier this month that Roosevelt then, just as Obama does now, faced an intractable conservative opposition that did not believe in government intervention on behalf of the economically dispossessed and jealously guarded the advantages of plutocracy. (Kaye is the author of the forthcoming Simon & Schuster book, “The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great.”)

Roosevelt also knew full well that Congress would never endorse an economic bill of rights. Dominated since 1938 by a conservative coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats, Congress had been doing everything it could to terminate the New Deal, limit the rights of workers and minorities, and block new liberal initiatives. And yet [Roosevelt] had good reason to believe that most of his fellow citizens would embrace the idea. Polls showed that the vast majority of Americans saw the war in terms of the Four Freedoms, and understood the battles of not just the past three years, but the past 12 years, in terms of enhancing American democratic life. In fact, 94 percent of them endorsed old-age pensions; 84 percent, job insurance; 83 percent, national health insurance; 79 percent, aid for students; and 73 percent, work relief. Pollster Jerome Bruner would observe: “If a ‘plebiscite’ on Social Security were to be conducted tomorrow, America would make the plans of our Social Security prophets look niggardly. We want the whole works.”

After outlining a set of policies to speed up the war effort, the president looked ahead: “It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known.” And in favor of that he proposed the adoption of a Second Bill of Rights.

It is a sign of the smallness of our politics that even a leader with the oratorical gifts of Barack Obama cannot, even in the midst of a crisis in which 20 million Americans are in need of full-time jobs, including roughly 4 million who have been out of work for more than six months, marshal Congress and the nation to declare that every American has a right to a job and a right to be able to earn enough in that job to not only feed and clothe themselves but to have a little recreation as well.

But Kaye reminds us that Roosevelt’s audacity energized a grassroots movement that fought for labor rights in the workplace and elected a progressive majority in Congress. It also gave birth to the GI Bill, an unprecedented investment in the human capital of soldiers returning from war that helped fuel the expansion of the middle class through the 1970s.

Fortunately, President Obama does not have to wait for another FDR birthday to appropriate FDR’s vision of an economy in which people aren’t simply left on their own to fight against powerful forces of oligarchic greed. Any day is the right day to declare that every American has a right to a job — and to a government that secures that right for its people.

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