“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
“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.”
Here’s a third to stimulate your brain:
“If you think back to the experiences of the early years of this Administration you will remember the doubts and fears expressed about the rising expenses of government. But to the surprise of the doubters, as we proceeded to carry on the program which included Public Works and Work Relief, the country grew richer instead of poorer.”
Some, no doubt, attributed at least one of the quotes to Barack Obama. But they would be wrong. And they’re not from John F. Kennedy, or Lyndon Baines Johnson, and, for sure, not from Ronald Reagan. All three emanated from the greatest president of the 20th century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Gilda and I visited his ancestral home in Hyde Park, NY, last Friday. The quotations are from the exhibit in the presidential library and museum (little known fact—FDR created the nation’s first presidential library while he was still in office, no less). Spoken almost 70 years ago, the quotes bear witness to FDR’s commitment to providing a better life for all Americans.
Yet, they also reveal how far short we have come in realizing his dream. We still debate the validity of programs Roosevelt initiated: Social Security, the minimum wage, the Securities and Exchange Commission, to name a few. We have not resolved the question whether government should provide a helping hand to the less fortunate or just let them fend for themselves. We have not realized that equality and equal opportunity are everyone’s right regardless of skin color, religion, creed or national origin.
Roosevelt was a canny, pragmatic politician with extreme mental and physical strength, the latter despite the paralysis of his lower body from his bout with polio 12 years before he was elected president for the first time. It is hard to imagine a president more reviled than Obama has been during his tenure, except when you consider the Republican response to Roosevelt. While the vast majority of Americans saluted his leadership by re-electing him three times, and many hung his picture in their homes, Republicans chafed at what they called his imperial presidency. They questioned his attacks on business interests, his support for unions. They thought he was imposing socialism on the country.
For good or bad, sometimes both, every president leaves a legacy. It’s not easy to evaluate a legacy during a president’s time in office. Obama is finding that out while the public ruminates on the Affordable Care Act, his global initiatives for cleaner energy, the nuclear pact with Iran, the ongoing battles in the Middle East, among other actions.
Now 70 years after his death, FDR’s imprint on our lives is immeasurable. Consider, if you will, the following list of accomplishments and societal changes printed on the back of a T-shirt sold in the museum’s gift shop. Imagine what our country would be like without them:
Securities and Exchange Commission, Small business loans, Federal Communications Commission, Labor union right, Child labor laws, Soil conservation, 78,000 bridges, Home ownership, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, 40 hour work week, Tennessee Valley Authority, Social Security, First presidential library, U.S. military superpower, 2 billion trees planted, March of Dimes, Disability Insurance, Rural electrification, Banking regulation, Fair employment practices, 650,000 miles of roads, Public housing, GI Bill, Unemployment Insurance, Farm subsidies, United Nations.
You can quibble whether some of these programs need to be retooled to meet modern conditions. Republicans opposed Social Security back in the 1930s and they remain committed to altering its promise of a secure retirement for working Americans. Roosevelt had laws passed to make employment and living conditions safer, less onerous and fairer. Yes, it required regulations, but they are not, as Reagan pompously proclaimed about government, “the problem.”
Roosevelt’s confidence and vision kept our democracy not just afloat but also buoyant. In the words of historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “The world we live in today is Franklin Roosevelt’s world.”