As the last days of the Hoover Administration mercifully passed into history, the banking crisis of 1933 exploded with the force of the Big Bang: banks were closing by the hundreds, leaving the nation’s financial system in near total collapse. In response, President Herbert Hoover contacted Franklin Roosevelt, who was then the president-elect, asking him to endorse Hoover’s proposed responses to the crisis and to enter into a joint proclamation.
The two men needed to show solidarity, Hoover insisted, in order to calm the panic
But FDR turned him down cold. He didn’t want to waste his political capital by associating himself with Hoover’s policies. And he didn’t want to accept even partial responsibility for programs that would be administered by the outgoing president, and would therefore be totally out of his control.
So he left Hoover on his own, twisting in the wind.
I’m sure that David Broder, had he been writing back then, would have heartily disapproved. It was Roosevelt’s duty, he would have asserted, to work toward nonpartisan consensus.
But Roosevelt knew better. He was facing a broken economy that needed to be fixed — but more than that, he was facing an unfair economy that needed to be made more just. And like it or not, that wasn’t going to be accomplished by holding hands and singing Kumbaya. It was going to take one hell of a fight and he would need all of the political capital he could muster.
As I once dreamed of FDR saying in a café episode titled, “Cocktails with Franklin”:
“So you’re saying we’re at the beginning of a new liberal era?”
Franklin slammed his fist on the bar top. “No! I’m not saying that at all. Nothing’s guaranteed . . . nothing ever is. Even the New Deal didn’t have to happen. There was nothing written in the stars saying things had to turn out the way they did. The nation could just as easily have turned to the right in its panic, finding hope in a tyrant . . . the fabled man on a white horse. Progressive change doesn’t just happen. Those who benefit under an existing economic order, no matter how unfair, never give up without a fight. Never! Certainly, there are always individuals who, like me, are accused of betraying their class in order to help the downtrodden, but they will always be the exception. Every major progressive stride that has ever been achieved in this country . . . every single one, has come about as a result of a knock-down-drag-out fight.”
I finally understood. “That’s what you were saying before about the power of political partisanship to bring about good, right?”
“Absolutely. All of these pundits . . . that’s what you call them today, right?”
“In my day we just called them bastards.” Franklin let out another good long laugh. “Anyway, all of these people insisting that the Democrats should just try to get along and work out compromises with Bush and the Republicans, make no mistake, what they’re really calling for is surrender, pure and simple. Because the plutocrats . . . the same people who finance the GOP today, have one heck of a sweet deal going and they’re not going to give it up without a fight. They never do. Bipartisanship didn’t create the New Deal. And it won’t bring about the kind of major change that’s needed to return fairness to America today.”
“So you’re saying it’s up to us.”
“You bet it is. You have a chance to change the world, but only if you’re willing to fight for it.” Then he grinned before adding: “And remember this: The only thing you have to fear is fear itself.”
Barack Obama today finds himself in a situation not altogether different from the one Roosevelt faced (although hopefully not quite as desperate). And like FDR, he now faces pressure to offer up his support for a massive “rescue” proposal representing — not his own best judgment and political philosophy — but that an unpopular incumbent administration.
And make no mistake: the pressure on him to do so will be overwhelming. With every point lost by the Dow, the screeches will grow louder — the demands for obedience more strident.
But don’t do it, Barack. Listen, instead, to your own inner FDR. Stand your ground for what you believe in. And push the Democrats in Congress — a group always too ready to collapse in fear of their own shadows — to do the same.
Obviously, something needs to be done and done soon: no one is suggesting that we can afford to wait until the inauguration of the next president to respond forcefully to the current financial crisis. To borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, we have to fight this crisis with the president we have, not the president we wish we had. But to say that doesn’t mean that Democrats have to accept the Bush Administration’s proposal for a 700 billion dollar gift to the financial sector — a proposal many economists doubt would work anyway.
No, we need to do better. And in a hopeful sign, a number of at least somewhat better proposals are already being put forward. The question is whether we’ll stick to our guns.
We keep telling the American people that we Democrats have better ideas. This would seem like a damn fine time to prove it.