The coronavirus pandemic may plunge the United States into its worst social and economic crisis since the Great Depression. But our response — from the president’s blame-shifting rhetoric to the Senate’s inadequate relief package — has yet to rise to the scale and scope of the challenge.
I’ve written before about why Congress needs to do far more than it has if it wants to save the economy from disease-induced depression. Here, I want to focus on rhetoric. If the country needs a New Deal-esque effort to stop the pandemic, then it also needs New Deal-esque leadership to mobilize manpower and resources to that end.
It’s with this in mind that I want to look to Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. Elected in November 1932, Roosevelt was well aware of a deep national hunger for leadership — for someone to bring energy to government and confront an economic crisis that threatened the entire social order.
Roosevelt was inaugurated on March 4, 1933. The day was gray and grim. “Though the city was gay with flags and lively with the music of bands and cheers for the marchers in the inaugural parade which followed the oath taking,” Arthur Krock wrote in The New York Times, “the atmosphere which surrounded the change of government in the United States was comparable to that which might be found in a beleaguered capital in wartime.”
For good reason. “In the agonizing interval between Roosevelt’s election in November 1932 and his inauguration in March 1933, the American banking system shut down completely” and “the global economy slid even deeper into the trough of the Depression,” historian David M. Kennedy writes in “Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.” In “The Crisis of the Old Order,” the first of his three volumes on Roosevelt and the New Deal, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. described the situation as a “fog of despair.”
“One out of every four American workers lacked a job,” he wrote.
“Factories that had once darkened the skies with smoke stood ghostly and silent, like extinct volcanoes. Families slept in tarpaper shacks and tin-lined caves and scavenged like dogs for food in the city dump.”
Schlesinger continued: “Thousands of vagabond children were roaming the land, wild boys of the road. Hunger marchers, pinched and bitter, were parading cold streets in New York and Chicago.”
Americans didn’t just hurt in the present; they feared for the future. “Hope proved elusive,” historian Ira Katznelson writes in “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.”
“The rumble of deep uncertainty, a sense of proceeding without a map, remained relentless and enveloping. A climate of universal fear deeply affected political understandings and concerns. Nothing was sure.”
Rather than avoid or ignore that fear, Roosevelt used his first words as president to face it head on. “A host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment,” he said. And yet, he continued, the nation’s distress “comes from no failure of substance,” before adding, “We are stricken by no plague of locusts.” Instead, Americans face poverty and deprivation because “the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence.”
To be fair, Roosevelt said, these men “have tried.” But their efforts “have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition.” In the face of a devastating crisis, they did more of the same. “They have no vision, and where there is no vision the people perish.”
Thankfully, those men were now gone from the scene. “The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization,” Roosevelt said. “We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths.” And what are those truths? It is the truth that “happiness lies not in the mere possession of money” but in the “joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.” It is the truth that “the joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits.”
For Roosevelt, the nation needed a change in ethics: an “abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit” and “an end to conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing.” At the same time, the country also needed immediate relief. To that end, he asked Americans to treat the challenge of unemployment and idle production “as we would treat the emergency of a war.”
This meant an end to the timid policies of the past and the orthodoxy that constrained Washington in the face of crisis and the start of a new, energetic approach to wielding the powers of the federal government. Roosevelt called for “direct recruiting by the government itself” to relieve unemployment and “direct efforts to raise the values of agricultural products” to prevent “the tragedy of the growing loss through foreclosure of our small homes and farms.” He called for “unifying of relief activities” and “national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and of communications and other utilities which have a definitely public character.” And he insisted that all of this is “feasible under the form of government which we have inherited from our ancestors.” The Republic was under stress, but it hadn’t been broken.
As Roosevelt neared the end of his address, he returned to the language of ethics as well as the language of war: “If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline.”
The American people craved leadership and Roosevelt delivered it, taking center stage in the nation’s political life and holding it for the next 12 years. Still, it would be another two years before his legislative program matched his rhetorical ambitions. It was the so-called second New Deal of the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act that fundamentally altered the federal government’s relationship to its citizens.
The larger point, however, is this: It took more than competence and ability to resolve the crisis of the 1930s. President Herbert Hoover was competent (in the early 1920s he spearheaded a relief effort that saved millions of Russians from starvation in the wake of famine and civil war); Hoover was able. But Hoover was committed to a failed orthodoxy, unable to think beyond the dogma of the past. Roosevelt wasn’t a blank slate, but he was flexible. He could think creatively about government, and his allies were eager to experiment. They brought openness and imagination to Washington and helped save the country in the process.
As we face what may become the great crisis of our age, we need that Rooseveltian leadership: flexible, creative and deeply aware of the power of words. Roosevelt’s first inaugural wasn’t just an impressive speech; it was a harbinger of things to come. Like nearly all of the most memorable presidential rhetoric, it cleared the way for action, pointing the country toward a singular goal. Put another way, the Roosevelt of March 1933 did not know how the future would unfold, but he understood the power he had to shape the limits of what was possible — and he didn’t hesitate to put it to work.
Jamelle Bouie is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.