Obama And FDR: Similar Challenges

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Barack Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced similar challenges 10 months into their presidencies. Guy Raz talks to Jonathan Alter, author of The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.

GUY RAZ, host:

As Brian just reported, President Obama hasn't met everyone's expectations so far. His popularity ratings are down and his critics are sharpening their knives. It all sounds very familiar to Jonathan Alter. He's the author of the book "The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope."

And Jonathan Alter joins me from his home in New Jersey. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JONATHAN ALTER (Author; Senior Editor, Newsweek): Thanks, Guy.

RAZ: There were a lot of comparisons made between President Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt after the election and after President Obama's first hundred days in office. We're now closing in on 300 days in office. What had Roosevelt accomplished at this point in his first term?

Mr. ALTER: I think he had stabilized the system, which was in meltdown when he took office. So Roosevelt became president at the bottom of the Great Depression, and he didn't end the Depression in his first year, but he eased it considerably. Obama was in a different situation where, when he took office, the challenge was to prevent us from falling into a depression, and I think he's also accomplished that, but that gets less credit than actually bringing the economy, you know, some of the way back.

RAZ: Now, both Roosevelt and Obama pushed through massive economic stimulus plans in their first few months in office. Roosevelt's, of course, was the New Deal. Jonathan Alter, how clear were the outlines of the New Deal at this point in Roosevelt's presidency?

Mr. ALTER: Well, not very clear yet. You know, Social Security wasn't for another two years. The big jobs programs did not come in 1933. The only one that year was Civilian Conservation Corps, which was 250,000. But both Roosevelt and Obama resisted pressure from liberals to nationalize the banks and they went with relatively conservative bank rescue plans, and in both cases, there was tremendous ingratitude on the part of the monied class. They felt, almost immediately after Roosevelt had saved their fortunes, that somehow, he was wrecking the country, and of course, you hear that now on the part of conservatives about President Obama after he, in many cases, saved their fortunes.

RAZ: Give us a sense of the context. I mean, there was a real fear among Roosevelt's critics, as there is among Obama's critics, that he was pushing policies that would eventually take this country down the road of socialism, or fascism to some. What were they saying about Roosevelt at the time?

Mr. ALTER: Both the word socialist, even communist and fascist were thrown at him. But it's also important to remember that a lot of people wanted a dictator at the time. People weren't sure that democracy and capitalism were going to survive.

So there were quite a number of Americans who wanted a strong hand. Studebaker had a car called the Dictator that sold pretty well in 1933.

RAZ: The comparisons that are made between Obama and Roosevelt aren't necessarily comparisons between the ability of the two men or the potential of Mr. Obama's presidency versus Roosevelt's, but more about the circumstances in which they found themselves at the beginning of their presidencies, with a massive economic crisis. Roosevelt had an advantage over Obama in a sense because he didn't have to deal with any major foreign policy issues at the time.

Mr. ALTER: That's right. Roosevelt was able to set foreign policy aside. Obviously within a few years, foreign policy dominated. But except for some worries about Hitler, who had just taken power, it didn't dominate to nearly the extent that it has with President Obama.

RAZ: So Jonathan Alter, how would you assess President Obama's first year since being elected, and how does it stack up to where FDR was, at this point, in his presidency?

Mr. ALTER: Well, I think that President Obama has achieved an awful lot of what he's set out to do, assuming that health care is approved. Roosevelt also had a mixed record. He stabilized the system. He also made some big mistakes.

The National Recovery Act, which was the centerpiece of the early New Deal in 1933, was a bad piece of legislation that entailed a lot of price-fixing, didn't really end up creating that many jobs and over-regulated. So there were mistakes that Roosevelt made, but he restored people's hope and faith in the future.

I don't think Obama has had the same kind of electric impact on the body politic that was really more of what he accomplished during his campaign and his election. But I do think that he's displayed competence and shown that people don't have to worry about the fact that he came to the presidency with very little experience.

RAZ: Jonathan Alter is a senior editor at Newsweek and the author of the 2006 book "The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope."

Jonathan Alter, thank you so much.

Mr. ALTER: Thanks. Pleasure talking to you.

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