Alan Zendell, April 24, 2017
In November, 2015 I visited the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York. It was very early in our far too long presidential campaign when every candidate was bemoaning the inability of Congress to get out of its own way, and to various degrees trying to convince us that our country was in crisis and only the one holding the microphone at that moment could fix it.
Walking through the FDR library gave me an interesting perspective. Given the challenges we faced from the depths of the Great Depression through the end of World War 2, did our current problems really qualify as a crisis? Maybe, but surely not with the urgency candidate Trump claimed.
Of all the things I saw at that library, the one that most got my attention, was the plaque pictured above. (Sorry the image isn’t clearer. You can see better images at http://www.fdrlibraryvirtualtour.org/page05-01.asp). At that moment what concerned me most about our country’s future was the enormous partisan divide in Congress. It had been some time since I’d studied the 1930’s in high school, so this simple display really made an impression on me. With the country in serious trouble, the new president whose wealthy family was, in effect, American royalty, felt the needs of the people who voted for him and fully devoted himself to making things better for them rather than telling the world how wonderful he was.
He had the same majority in Congress that Trump has today. He had the same kind of violent detractors who never stopped hating him and trying to tear him down. He also had a free press with a tradition of professional journalism, less influenced by money and special interests. With no need to inflate himself and no real skeletons in his closet, FDR fostered an open and positive relationship with both the print media and his radio audience.
He never claimed to have a magic bullet. In fact, he said he was willing to try new things and if they failed he would openly acknowledge that and move on to try something else. FDR was a highly skilled politician who managed to inspire most Americans to persevere, and they loved and believed in him. Though some people may have hated his progressive ideology, no one ever doubted that when Franklin Roosevelt made a promise he intended to keep it.
I never put much faith in the first hundred days test of a presidency. I wouldn’t have paid any attention to it in the current administration if Donald Trump hadn’t made it one of the central features of his campaign. It’s probably not fair to compare what FDR accomplished in 100 days to what Trump hasn’t. But it’s extremely fair to look at some of the reasons.
With the nation in the worst crisis since the Civil War, Roosevelt didn’t blame our problems on other countries and didn’t try to turn ethnic, racial, and religious groups against each other. He empowered people with a sense of purpose and his belief that we were all in this together and would have to work hard as a nation to make things better. Rather than appeal to fear, he repeatedly told people they could overcome it with hard work. He said he would use the power of the government to improve their lives. He promised jobs and made the government create them.
What did Trump do? He made outlandish promises he knew he couldn’t keep. A three trillion dollar infrastructure project was supposed to put Americans back to work, though overall we already had the lowest unemployment in a decade. Even someone as inexperienced as Trump had to know that was a promise a Republican majority in Congress would never pay for. But Roosevelt, by getting the press and the people on his side made it happen. He didn’t have a Congress with a huge progressive majority. What he had was a Congress that knew it had to deliver.
Roosevelt had to deal with much of the same isolationist and America First movements that Trump does. While Trump empowered them to help elect him, they have played no constructive role in getting things done. That’s what happens you get everyone pointing fingers at his neighbors and blaming them for his problems. The isolationists and anti-socialists fought Roosevelt at every turn, but he never stooped to demonizing them. By placing himself above his patrician roots and remaining focused on what he promised, he was able to mobilize a concerted effort that managed the massive task of reversing the effects of The Depression and got us through the war.
Take another look at the list of what FDR accomplished in his first hundred days. It’s beyond impressive. If it hadn’t really happened, you’d think it was a fairy tale. Now ask yourself, honestly, if Trump’s approach ever had a real chance to succeed and how much of the problem is Trump himself.