Obama Turns not to Roosevelt, but Carter

Obama asserted in his inaugural speech that our “badly weakened” economy is the result of “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”

What was the hard choice working people should have made to prepare the nation for a new age? Are workers really to blame for this mess? Or are persons in positions of power? You can only hold people accountable for the things under their control.

The President of the United States has not always blamed the public for the crimes and failings of elites. In his 1933 inaugural speech, Franklin Delano Roosevelt opened with a promise to “speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly” and then proceeded to blame “the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods.” He said that they “have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence,” to properly lead the nation.

“Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men,” the thirty-second president said, attacking the rulers of exchange as only knowing “the rules of a generation of self-seekers.” (Polls regularly show that more than 80 percent of Americans today believe corporations have too much power.)

“They have no vision,” FDR said of the corporate leaders; “and when there is no vision the people perish.”

FDR preached about “the moral stimulation of work,” contrasting it with “the mad chase of evanescent profits,” and asserted that the restoration of our ideals “lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”

(Read the speech here: First Inaugural Address, 4.3.1933. This is the speech Americans deserved this week, not this: Obama’s Inaugural Address.)

In the speech on Tuesday, Obama talked about “greed” and “irresponsibility” without identifying the culprits. When he identified the party at fault, he implicated everybody.

In contrast to Roosevelt, who argued that the problem was not the spirit of America but the material failure of the economic system, Obama said (after talking about “the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics”):

Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

He blamed the people’s spirit.

Recall Carter’s words from the notorious “malaise speech” of 1979:

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation.

Roosevelt charged that the money lenders were “pleading tearfully for restored confidence” after losing “the lure of profit to induce our people to follow their false leadership.” Obama, like Carter, like the false leaders Roosevelt assaults, accuses the public of losing confidence in their country.

Obama turns not to Roosevelt in this time of crisis, but to Carter, who failed to show the courage necessary to challenge corporate power on behalf of the nation that elected him.

Workers are not to blame. Workers woke up every morning over the last several decades and did the right thing all day long (in the context of the prevailing economic system, a system they were told was just and fair). It’s not their fault they’re being thrown out of work and home. The “rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods” are to blame.

Roosevelt spoke the truth without advocating the overthrow of capitalism. Why can’t Obama? Why couldn’t Carter? Why must the victims of economic calamity bear the brunt of austerity? Where is the critical analysis from the media watchdogs who are supposed to keep the politicians honest?

Roosevelt said in the spring of 1938:

Unhappy events abroad [the rise of fascism in Italy and nazism in Germany) have retaught us two simple truths about the liberty of a democratic people. The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic State itself. That, in its essence, is fascism — ownership of government by an individual, by a group or by any other controlling private power.

The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living. Both lessons hit home. Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing.

Roosevelt didn’t just assert these facts but provided a detailed statistical analysis of the situation: One-tenth of one percent US corporations owned 52 percent of all corporate assets and received 50 percent of all corporate income in the 1930s. Less than 5 percent of US corporations owned 87 percent of the assets and less than 4 percent of manufacturing corporations received 84 percent of their net profits. In 1929, three-tenths of the population received 78 percent of dividends. In 1933, 33 percent of all inheritances went to 4 percent of heirs.

Roosevelt’s New Deal pushed back corporate power and redistributed income. He opened the way for the normalization of organized labor and the creation of a broad middle class. Educational opportunities were expanded. Poverty plummeted from 33 percent in 1950 to less than 12 percent by the end of the 1960s. Home ownership grew.

But big capital fought back, gaining strength over the decade, buying off our leaders, crushing labor, shrinking the middle class, taking control of both political parties. Corporations are now more powerful that before – capitalism has colonized virtually every aspect of our lives and its reach is global. Roosevelt’s statistical profile reads like that of the present day. And his warning sounds like prophecy.

More than ever the supporters of capitalism – for the capitalists themselves are driving the system into the ground – need Roosevelt’s words and deeds. But they get instead Carter’s rhetoric, Clinton’s cabinet, and operatives from the Federal Reserve, World Bank, and IMF.

Was this the change those who voted for Obama were expecting?

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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