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|November 6-12, 2008
• We are better than we know
• How to build a legacy
We are better than we know
In November 2006, National Public Radio aired a segment of “All Things Considered” in which Americans were polled about their willingness to elect a black man as president of the United States. While about 62 percent of those polled said they would be willing to vote for a black man, they also said that they didn’t believe the United States was likely to put an African-American in the Oval Office. This same sentiment was repeated in subsequent polls on CNN and throughout the media. Newspapers from coast to coast question whether the United States was “ready” to see a black man in the White House.
The question was prompted by the unlikely candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama. I read these polls as they were released, agreeing with the majority. While I personally would vote for the person I most trusted to look after American interests regardless of that person’s skin color, I wasn’t sure the rest of America was up to the task.
After all, it’s only been 143 years since the 13th Amendment was ratified, finally outlawing slavery, and only 90 years have passed since President Woodrow Wilson conceded to pressure and made a public statement against lynching. Not racism, but lynching. The struggles of Rosa Parks, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and civil-rights marchers are relatively recent events, having occurred in the lifetimes of many who cast votes on Nov. 4.
With that as our history, it was hard to imagine two years ago that Americans would flood polling places to elect an African-American man as president, especially when that man had a weird name like “Barack Hussein Obama.” And yet, last night Barack Hussein Obama was chosen by the American people to be our 44th president.
So what happened?
Part of what drove voters was loathing for the Bush administration, among the worst in U.S. history. Having lost the popular vote in 2000, Bush used fear to hold onto the presidency in 2004, pounding on issues like terrorism, abortion and gay marriage to activate a reactionary voter base. But many Americans have grown tired of this, repudiating fear and religious extremism and choosing hope and moderation instead.
Much credit for this victory goes to the grassroots coalition of Americans that came together to get Obama elected. My son Ben, a college student in Ithaca, N.Y., took a break from classes to walk the streets of black neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, canvassing and working to get out voters on Nov. 4. He’s never seen the kind of poverty he saw there. Not everyone welcomed him, but most listened. Many voted, inspired by the energy that the Obama campaign brought to their doorsteps.
On Election Night, when Obama was declared the victor, Ben watched an elderly African-American couple hug and kiss and cry and got choked up himself, imagining how long they must have waited for this moment. Then the couple surprised him, turning to him and drawing him — a white boy from Boulder — into their embrace.
White, black, Asian, American Indian, young, old, rich, middle class, poor, blue collar, white collar, green collar — those who worked for the Obama campaign demonstrated exactly how a society as diverse as ours can pull together for the greater good. Because they managed to work together in common purpose, they achieved a goal many of them probably initially believed was impossible.
But Obama himself perhaps deserves the greatest credit for this victory. Yes, he campaigned hard, debated well and delivered inspiring, thoughtful speeches. But beyond that, he did something an American leader hasn’t been able to do for a long time. He believed in us more than we believed in ourselves, sharing with us a vision of who we are and then working to make us believe it. In so doing, he made that vision a reality.
The celebration after his victory — dancing in the streets from Boulder’s Pearl Street to Chicago and Nairobi to Tokyo — reminded me of the ending of Return of the Jedi, when people clog the streets of Coruscant, Naboo and planets near and far, to celebrate the destruction of the Empire. How satisfying it must have been for those who took the party to Bush’s doorstep, celebrating his imminent departure outside his bedroom window. But it wasn’t just the end of the Bush administration that made people take to the streets around the world. Obama’s victory represents far more than that.
It represents nothing less than hope restored. After disappointing the world by seeming to support Bush’s failed policies, America took a step on Nov. 4 toward redeeming itself and living up to its promise as a nation, a promise that has always given people around the world something to believe in. When we fail, we let not only ourselves down, but everyone who cherishes the ideals of freedom and government by and for the people. On Nov. 4, we surprised ourselves and the rest of the world, reminding ourselves and everyone else just how powerful and amazing the American people can be.
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How to build a legacy
William E. Leuchtenburg compares FDR and his world to that
of President-elect Barack Obama
by Pamela White
First they compared him to President John F. Kennedy. Then the global economy crashed, and pundits began to compare President-elect Barack Obama with President Franklin Roosevelt, arguably the greatest president of the 20th century, the man who saw his nation through both the Great Depression and World War II.
But how apt is that comparison? Clearly there are dramatic differences between the two figures. Roosevelt was white and came from a wealthy extended family. His distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, had already held the presidency, providing at least some sense of legacy for FDR.
Obama, on the other hand, is African-American, raised by a determined single mother who probably never imagined that her son would one day be chosen by his fellow citizens to lead the nation — a nation the history of which has been stained by racial strife.
But there are similarities, as well.
Boulder Weekly spent this first dawn of a new political era speaking with William E. Leuchtenburg, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Leuchtenburg, the author of numerous books on U.S. presidents and presidential history, is a nationally recognized expert on the U.S. presidency, FDR and the New Deal.
Boulder Weekly: Most of us probably have little real familiarity with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Can you compare the challenges he faced going into office and the enormous difficulties facing President-elect Barack Obama?
Prof. William Leuchtenburg: The most striking difference between now and then is that Roosevelt came into office at a time of much more severe economic crisis. We were in the fourth year of the Great Depression. Instead of an unemployment rate of the sort we now have — 6 to 7 percent — it was at least 25 percent, probably higher than that.
On the morning of FDR’s inauguration the head of the New York Stock Exchange walks to the rostrum. The brokers expect him to sound the gong to begin trading. Instead, Richard Whitney announces, “The New York Stock Exchange is closing down.” So the whole financial system has come to a halt. That was also true of the Chicago Board of Trade. And when Roosevelt is inaugurated three hours later, every bank in the country has either closed its doors or is on a very limited withdrawal basis. So there is a far greater crisis than we have at the moment.
That having been said, we obviously are in the midst of a very scary international financial meltdown and have been for the past month or so, so to that extent there’s a parallel between Obama and FDR.
BW: What about the international perspective — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the conflict with terrorists.
WL: In foreign affairs, it’s quite different. The United States was at peace when FDR took office. There was not an Iraq war. There was, of course, not the threat of nuclear proliferation. On the other hand, FDR begins his presidency at the same time that Jews are being beaten in the streets of Germany and Adolf Hitler is taking total power in Germany. Mussolini has been in power for more than a decade in Italy, and Stalin in the Soviet Union. So there are very serious foreign threats; they’re just not precisely the same as those Obama will confront.
BW: How does America itself compare?
WL: What we have today is a very sharp lack of faith in the future... I think the last figures I saw in USA Today was less than 12 percent of the country thinks that the United States is headed in the right direction.
BW: Actually, it dropped to 9 percent.
WL: Wow. That low. We didn’t have that kind of poll data in 1933, but certainly there was an enormous sense — the journalists of the day depicted a lack of faith and a terror. This is what FDR was addressing in his famous remark in his inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” There was widespread fear that the country was disintegrating.
The ways I think Obama and FDR are alike is that they are both transformational figures. They are both inspiring figures. There is both in their manner and their message something that conveys a conviction that the country is headed for better days and that they can be the agent for restoring confidence and bringing about a more promising future. [Now that Obama has been elected], to state the obvious, we’ve got to see whether in fact he can do this. But that is certainly how they’re alike.
There’s another way that the situation today is like that in 1932. [Obama’s victory] is a credit to him personally, but the main reason he [won] is acute dissatisfaction with the party in power — with Bush and the Republicans. Similarly that was true in 1932. People were attracted to FDR — they liked what they saw. But he was elected not for that reason, but because the country was repudiating Hoover and the Republicans — 12 years of Republican rule.
BW: In my experience, Bush’s eight years in office have generated an unprecedented amount of despair and fear both in the United States and abroad. The GOP has held the reins for a long time.
WL: If you take the period since Carter was defeated in 1980, we’re talking about a period of 28 years and 20 of those years the Republicans have been in power.
BW: So what is Obama up against if he wants to create a presidential legacy that compares to that left by FDR?
WL: FDR takes office on March 4, 1933, and in the first 100 days sends 15 messages up to the Hill, and Congress enacts all 15. During that period, it’s just an extraordinary change. There had never been in all of American history so much important domestic legislation enacted, and, indeed, arguably there has never been since.
This is the time when you get the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, federal insurance of bank deposits, the regulation of securities on Wall Street, protection of unionization, aid to homeowners who owed mortgages — just a whole range of programs of that sort.
BW: How does the recent bailout of Wall Street compare to some of FDR’s actions?
WL: It’s not really comparable. The bailout is restricted to helping financial institutions survive. It isn’t a direct to people themselves. In contrast to what Roosevelt does in the first hundred days and even more in the second hundred days of 1935, when you get the Social Security Act and other pieces of legislation. In those first hundred days of ’33, young men are sent into the forests in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Millions of dollars are given to the jobless who are put to work on federal programs. Mortgage holders are directly helped, not through the banks. The bailout really is not comparable.
BW: When you think about FDR’s infrastructure push, I can’t help but think of the Minneapolis bridge collapse and the experts who pointed out that our infrastructure really hasn’t been a priority since the days of the CCC.
WL: That’s exactly right. I think this is one of the areas that Obama can be expected to work in.
BW: The American citizens going into 2009 are very different than those of 1933, sharply divided over social issues, politically polarized. If Obama hopes to make significant changes in domestic and foreign policy, he’ll need the support of the American people. Did FDR have that support? Are we united enough to give that support to Obama?
WL: You’re right in saying there are certain issues that weren’t part of the politic agenda, like gay rights, like abortion. There were certain kinds of social issues that had been turning the country in the 1920s. Prohibition was one. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan, which had an important element in Denver and in Colorado politics, as well as in other parts of the country. But I think two things can be said.
I think if you’re looking generally at society, class divisions were much more bitter in the 1930s than they are today — the hatred of bankers of Wall Street, of industrialists in general.
You could also say that political cooperation was more possible than has been in recent years, so that when FDR puts through the legislation of the first hundred days, it’s resisted by most Republicans. But there are Republicans who join with him on some of the important legislation, like the banking legislation of 1933. It was easier to reach across the aisle in 1933 certainly than it has been during the Bush years.
BW: During the Bush years, we heard some conservatives talking about dismantling the New Deal once and for all.
WL: That was certainly true at the outset of the Bush presidency in his first term. He was talking about matters like putting the Social Security system on a voluntary basis. It’s also true that he put people in charge of New Deal agencies — like the SEC — who were less than enthusiastic about enforcing [SEC regulations]. But I don’t think there was ever really any real prospect that the Social Security Act would come to an end, that the SEC would be dismantled, that the TVA dams would be sold. I think the New Deal is with us into the foreseeable future as far ahead as any of us can imagine.
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