Deciding on a President: The standard set by FDR's first inaugural address

By Jim Oleske of Portland, Oregon. Jim is a former labor lawyer who has since served as a Democratic staffer in the U.S. Congress and the Oregon Legislature. He is currently pursuing a writing project concerning economic fairness.

For those still deciding whom to support in Oregon's upcoming Democratic Primary, I'd like to suggest a standard.

It's not who won in Iowa (Obama), New Hampshire (Clinton), Missouri (Obama), Ohio (Clinton), Wisconsin (Obama), Pennsylvania (Clinton) or any other swing state that has already voted.

It's not who has won the most elected delegates (Obama), superdelegates (Clinton), or overall delegates (Obama) so far.

And it's not who has the most popular votes to date (Obama, Obama, Obama, Obama, Clinton or Clinton, depending on which of the six competing tallies you use).

No, although each of these measurements make for interesting horserace analysis, and although one of them will eventually provide the procedural mechanism for determining our nominee (overall delegates, when finalized), none speaks to the substantive question of what we need in our next President.

What we need is someone who can speak honestly about our nation's profound challenges, inspire the collective will of the nation to tackle those challenges, and develop a working majority that will support the monumental changes necessary to right our national ship.

In short, what we need is someone who could convincingly deliver - and effectively deliver upon - the core messages and commitments found in FDR's first inaugural address, which is remarkably relevant to our current challenges.

The address - which is most famous for FDR's bold proclamation that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" - sets a very high standard. A standard that has rarely been required of, or met by, American presidents.

In these times, however, that standard must be met again.

And I would submit that our responsibility - as Democrats, Oregonians and Americans - is determining who among our candidates is best equipped to meet that standard today.

FDR's first inaugural is well worth reading in full, but here are some key excerpts that struck me as particularly relevant to the task our next President will face:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly.... In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days. In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties....

[R]ulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated.... Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money....

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits....

Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the 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 there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing.

Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.

Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now....

Our greatest primary task is to put people to work…. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself ... accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources….

The task can be helped by ... preventing realistically the tragedy of the growing loss through foreclosure of our small homes and our farms.... It can be helped by the unifying of relief activities which today are often scattered, uneconomical, and unequal. It can be helped by national planning for and supervision of ... utilities which have a definitely public character.... We must act and act quickly.

Finally, in our progress toward a resumption of work we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order; there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments; there must be an end to speculation with other people's money, and there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency....

In the field of world policy I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor - the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others - the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors.

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 can not 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, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective.

We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.

With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems....

We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of the national unity.

Restoring the warm courage of national unity, honestly facing the challenges before us, and leading an army of people ready to make sacrifices for the common good.

That is the standard.

Can we find a President who meets it?

Yes. We. Can.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly.... In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.

    In that case, we will need to vote for Ralph Nader or Dennis Kucinich; however, because the only viable candidates are Obama, Hillary and McCain that will mean the nod goes to Obama. Compared with the other two, Obama is a paragon in the honesty department.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    In that case, we will need to vote for Ralph Nader....

    I did that once. Then I woke up.

    Ralph Nader is not interested in governance. He is not interested in listening to others. He is interested in being a gadfly and in massaging his already large ego.

    If you truly cannot vote for the Democrat, please consider a choice other than Nader.

  • (Show?)

    I've always been partial to the part of FDR's acceptance speech for the renomination for the presidency where he said:

    “Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales.

    “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

    The present Administration is "frozen in the ice of its own indifference."

  • backbeat, woman (unverified)

    And of course Roosevelt would never have modelled himself after the republicans by saying "you're either with us or against us" like Senator Clinton did today re: gas holiday. So, we're either with Clinton and McBush or against them?

    Put me down for AGAINST!

  • Larry McD (unverified)

    You're absolutely right about FDR's first inaugural and I thank you for reminding people of it, but the speech that really lights my fire is his acceptance of his third nomination.

    It's as if he wrote it for the 2008 campaign but we don't have a candidate who would dare make the case that FDR makes with angry eloquence and political passion. I encourage every person who thinks of him or herself as a progressive to read it: ( Roosevelt's 3rd Nomination Acceptance Speech)

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    In that case, we will need to vote for Ralph Nader....

    I did that once. Then I woke up.

    The context was about honesty, not about pragmatism.

  • Jim Oleske (unverified)

    Chuck -- Thanks for the reminder of yet another FDR speech that is well worth revisiting. In addition to the continued relevance of FDR's warnings about indifference from our government, the 1936 Convention Speech probably represents the pinnacle of economic fairness rhetoric in Presidential addresses. Some key excerpts on that front:

    An old English judge once said: "Necessitous men are not free men." Liberty requires opportunity to make a living—a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.

    For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor—other people's lives....

    Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of Government. The collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people's mandate to end it. Under that mandate it is being ended.

    The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the Government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody's business. They granted that the Government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the Government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live... .

    These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the Flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.

    The brave and clear platform adopted by this Convention, to which I heartily subscribe, sets forth that Government in a modern civilization has certain inescapable obligations to its citizens, among which are protection of the family and the home, the establishment of a democracy of opportunity, and aid to those overtaken by disaster.

  • (Show?)

    It's refreshing to be reminded that we have had U.S. presidents who aren't afraid to treat the public as adults capable of understanding complex problems and the solutions, including sacrifice, necessary to fix them. Fortunately in 2008, we have a candidate -- Barack Obama -- who will do the same.

  • (Show?)

    No offense to Kari, etal, but Jim, this is too small an audience for this piece.

  • John Oleske (unverified)

    There's nothing like some FDR to be reminded that great things can come out of nasty, protracted nomination fights.

    One of my favorites is his speech to the Commonwealth Club in 1932. Key grafs:*

    The issue of government has always been whether individual men and women will have to serve some system of government of economics, or whether a system of government and economics exists to serve individual men and women. This question has persistently dominated the discussion of government for many generations. On questions relating to these things men have differed, and for time immemorial it is probable that honest men will continue to differ.

    The final word belongs to no man; yet we can still believe in change and in progress...


    The same man who tells you that he does not want to see the government interfere in business-and he means it, and has plenty of good reasons for saying so-is the first to go to Washington and ask the government for a prohibitory tariff on his product. When things get just bad enough-as they did two years ago-he will go with equal speed to the United States government and ask for a loan; and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation is the outcome of it. Each group has sought protection from the government for its own special interest, without realizing that the function of government must be to favor no small group at the expense of its duty to protect the rights of personal freedom and of private property of all its citizens.


    Every man has a right to life; and this means that he has also a right to make a comfortable living. He may by sloth or crime decline to exercise that right; but it may not be denied him. We have no actual famine or death; our industrial and agricultural mechanism can produce enough and to spare. Our government formal and informal., political and economic, owes to every one an avenue to possess himself of a portion of that plenty sufficient for his needs, through his own work.


    Faith in America, faith in our tradition of personal responsibility, faith in our institutions, faith in ourselves demands that we recognize the new terms of the old social contract. We shall fulfill them, as we fulfilled the obligation of the apparent Utopia which Jefferson imagined for us in 1776, and which Jefferson, Roosevelt and Wilson sought to bring to realization. We must do so, lest a rising tide of misery engendered by our common failure, engulf us all. But failure is not an American habit; and in the strength of great hope we must all shoulder our common load.

    *there are no non-key grafs. The speech is a multidisciplinary tour-de-force, a nuanced, detailed argument for modern progressivism.

  • Opinionated (unverified)

    Its great to make lofty speeches. They are powerful, compelling and inspiring especially when spoken from the heart. It shows that the person's heart is above their head or close to their head. That is what you need in a great President. That is how you build the warm courage to make bold decisions. Hillary has shown a lot of courage during those challenging years at the white house and through out her support of Bill. She sacrificed her career for Bill Clinton and now is ready to build a future for our country. Who else but her is the best to lead this nation. She has her heart above her head!


  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    Thank you for the excerpts from FDR's inaugural address (and for the lines from the other speeches). It's depressing, however, that after 76 years, we are again confronting the same issues and the same denial that FDR spoke about in that inaugural.

  • Sam (unverified)

    One of the things I cherish about this speech is the notion of interdependence and support of our neighbor. Sadly, this charge is something I have seen to be lacking in some Obama supporters, who are grossly dismissive of the "uneducated Archie Bunker types" (aka the working class, incidentally about 70% of the US population over 25) and the elder voters who have been supporting Clinton. Both of these constituencies who are being dismissed as irrelevant in the face of the new politics of the Obama campaign will be needed in November if he is the nominee - it would do well for Obama's supporters to think hard about interdependence NOW, and remember that we all sink or rise together.

    Also on the topic of systemic thinking, critiques of Hillary Clinton's gas tax "holiday" proposal because it would save "on average [only] $28 dollars" are missing a few points that a focus on interdependence helps to surface: 1) Whose average was this? In what state was this average taken? Does it incorporate summer driving pattern data, or is it a yearly number? Does the average include people living in rural areas with no mass transit, those who drive large cars with low MPG because their jobs require it (like contractors), those for whom the savings represent a substantial impact in the family budget (and/or for whom the savings would be much larger than $28)? Or do we just ignore all those people who could benefit because we, personally, might not?

    2) What about the fact that higher gas prices are reflected in the higher cost of goods down the line? Thinking interdependently (or systemically), temporarily replacing the gas tax burden on the consumer with a tax on the profits the oil companies have made, would be of benefit to those of us who rely on the trucking industry to receive goods...which is pretty much all of us. Of course, it's a temporary measure - but does that mean that it's not worth doing at all?

    I am very happy to see a focus on interdependence and systemic thinking [finally!] emerge in the campaign. I am a policy voter, and I'm concerned about the international reputation of the United States as well as the importance of getting new voters engaged in the political process. The candidate I believe to be best suited for the Office of the President (versus the best campaigner for the Presidency) is Hillary Clinton, who shows a much stronger grasp, understanding, and experience of the importance interdependence plays within the United States and abroad.

  • sadie (unverified)

    sam - I think you have fundamentally missed the truth on this issue. People like me support Barack Obama because he doesn't lie to people or pander to different groups in an attempt to get a few votes on empty promises that won't actually benefit them.

    I support Obama's idea that a tax holiday is a pandering political stunt even though I understand what it is like to have to pay for the high cost of fuel. I support that idea because I'm a progressive just like FDR.

    Obama and his supporters like me are unwilling to lie to people and insult their intelligence by telling them a tax holiday would cut their costs at the pump. Obama is actually being generous by saying the average person might see a $28 break if the plan were to work as it is being sold to the public.

    If the market can tolerate $3.60/gallon to balance the available supply of a finite resource like gasoline with the demand in the market, then whether .18 cents of that is going to the Federal budget to pay for Public Works Programs like repairing our crumbling bridges and repaving our chewed up interstate highways, or if that .18 cents is going directly in to the hands of the oil companies, they are still going to charge what the market can tolerate.

    Gas rose .16 cents/gallon on average in just two weeks in the month of April, but the Federal taxes per gallon didn't. So ask yourself - do you honestly believe that within two weeks of the holiday we would not be right back to paying the same price? If you want to solve the energy crisis then you have to be honest with people. My grandfather who ran a farm in rural Minnesota during the 1970's gas shortage crisis was just as capable of hearing the truth as my suburban neighbor who drives a low MPG SUV to and from the office by himself everyday.

  • Larry McD (unverified)

    As long as there are 41 Republicans in the United States Senate, there will be no "windfall profits tax" on oil companies.

    Therefore, the revenue lost to the federal government from a "gas tax holiday" will be truly lost. Since most of that money goes to states for infrastructure improvements and repairs during the summer months, those improvements and repairs will not be made. The jobs that those improvements and repairs generate will not be filled.

    The alternative is for the government to borrow $10 billion more from the Chinese government to cover the shortfall.

    That's taking interdependence into account.

  • (Show?)

    Larry, that's only because the Democrats collaborate to preserve the anti-democratic supermajority rules that are subject to change by the majority, as the Republicans' threats to use the "nuclear option" of changing the rules to gain leverage on Bush's judicial nominees a while back illustrated.

    The cloture rules are not law, just rules made by the current majority -- similarly with the even more egregious "holds".

    These have been increasingly abused, and the Democratic majority should take a serious look at reforming them given the severity of some of the crises we face.

    It is not inevitable that things remain as they are.

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